The Market for a Better Content UX
Building an Internet Native Reading/Writing Experience
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This week: companies building a better way to visualize content
Mario at The Generalist recently wrote a great piece on how tech is in "the Age of the Remix" (source). First, we turned paper-and-pen writing into Microsoft Office; now we're building tools that "make it easier to splice additional functionality into the writing process, build off other users' work, or draw on one's own ideas."
I love this idea and think these new tools are sorely needed. Half a century after the invention of the computer, it still feels nicer to write on paper or read from a book. Why is this?
When we write, we're used to our pen flying across the page, and the digital tools don't replicate the tactical romance of their physical counterparts: scrolling an article can't micmic the urge to just flip one more page. But the nature of 1st gen technological change is to translate the old experience to a new mode: to bring the experience of paper and pen to our laptops. Enter: Payprus font, Microsoft Paint.
The problem is that in trying to preserve the old experience, the 1st gen tools also preserved the restrictions of that world, and weren't able to tap into 2 big advantages of the new one:
Digital content exists in a live network. MLA format and analog bibliographies are stagnant; hyperlinks are active and continuous. They tell us about the context of a work—what informed it and what it went on to inform—and paint a picture of how communities are learning over time.
Zero marginal transaction costs allow distributed ownership and infinite versioning: a digital commons. When you access a physical copy of a book, that copy is owned by someone—it's your's or your friend's or the library's—but digital copies of a book can be accessed and interacted with simultaneously. Their ownership can be truly communal, like Wikipedia or OER commons.
In the same way that the car eventually became more than just a horseless carriage, we're in the process of building the above themes into new, digitally-native dimensions of interaction for online text.
Take this Vox piece as an example:
In 1st gen internet content like this (including the email newsletter you’re reading right now), elements are presented flatly. The physical, visual, sequential structures of the page don’t match the semantic structure of the elements: the title, content, pics, comments, links, share buttons, and even ads can all be understood as part of either the subtext, the text, or the supra-text:
Flat arrangement of the subtext, text, and supra-text obfuscate the context of a work: there is a live, evolving commons of discourse around this article about Japan’s PM resigning, but in the above UI, we can't see it. People will tweet about this article. People will tweet about other, related articles. Someone will write an article about this article. Someone will write an article about one of the books that informed this article.
In the old world, the flat arrangements that obfuscated this network (like a print book) mattered less because the high cost of content production produced natural middlemen. Publishers served as curators and quality control agents as means of competing in their markets. (Plus, as noted above, we weren’t capturing as much of the dialogue that exists around analog content because of discrete, sequestered ownership of goods: you can’t have a live comments section in a book.)
Today, the cost of writing something on the internet is much lower than the cost of producing and distributing a nationwide magazine, so no one needs a middleman. I can send you this newsletter myself through a platform like Substack. In losing our middleman, though, we've lost our curators, and our discourse can lose its anchor—as the saying goes:
"The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."
Middlemen & the old aren't coming back: a "creator economy" of writers and artists is already taking advantage of the lowered digital transaction costs and unbundling from distributors.
Going forward, the replacement for content middlemen is a user interface.
4 cool companies building a better UI for content:
Genius wants to become “the internet Talmud”
You have probably found song lyrics on Genius — they publish lyrics and crowdsource explanations on meanings from the public and the artists themselves. The results are sometimes pretentious, sometimes humorous: it’s a space for Camila Cabello listeners to ponder the significance of her frequent moon references. But the larger promise of Genius is the construction of a new layer of experience on top of a text: they’re building a UI for the supratext layer diagrammed above. This logic can be followed far beyond song lyrics: today, the Genius library includes books, court cases, Obama White House speeches, and more. A16Z partner Ben Horowitz hypothesizes that this company can ultimately do for the internet what the Talmud did for the Old Testament: provide context, insight, and discourse in a supra-textual space. The Wall Street Journal recently proclaimed their pursuit “worthy of Age of Enlightenment sages like Diderot and Voltaire.”
Genius is hiring a president.
Almanac brings content versioning to regular work
Almanac is creating the user interface for the interactions between subtext and content. Here’s how it works: right now they’re focused specifically on tech/startup resources—so for example, if I was a manager a tech company, instead of figuring out how to manage my remote team myself, I’d start with this guide on Almanac that someone else made, copy it, and modify it for my needs and preferences. The whole process (find, copy, modify) would happen right on the Almanac platform. My version of the guide would automatically link, like a paper trail, back to the source from which I derived it—the subtext of my work. The paper trail helps the commons, and the gain for me is that because I don’t have to start from scratch, I can skip ahead to the more meaningful work. It’s bringing the Git-style versioning that developers have used for decades to regular non-code content.
Almanac is hiring a head of marketing, head of design, and an engineer.
Golden = Wikipedia meets artificial intelligence
Wikipedia is the most expansive and diverse encyclopedia to ever exist: their English-language library contains nearly 5.8 million articles. Yet there are over 1 billion knowledge “objects” in the universe, which means that Wikipedia is about 1000 times too small to explain everything that humans know. Golden is refining the content layer of knowledge by locating and mapping out the missing 99.9 percent: they’re building an encyclopedia for the future by giving zealous human editors best-in-class editing tools and pairing that human might with a savvy AI. Their bots are smart enough to ‘detect new topics, classify topics, cross-link topics, find [relevant] data, disambiguate [the] data, and create new content.’ Their library is mostly free (recommended reading: their covid page is the most comprehensive-yet-intelligible data source I’ve seen outside of Twitter).
They’re hiring for software and data engineers as well as their first salesperson.
Hypothes.is is building a conversation layer above content
This company, along with Genius above, is taking a shot at building a UI for the “supra-textual” layer of text. They’ve built a chrome plugin that allows anyone to comment directly on any article or online text. The annotations can be public, semi-public, or completely private: you can tag your friend or your research group or your fellow reporter or you can invite the whole world to thread back in conversation. The tool is kind of like an inverted Twitter, where the content is the center of banter, rather than vice versa. Their end goal is “to enable a conversation over the world’s knowledge…a conversation layer over the entire web that works everywhere, without needing implementation by any underlying site.” They work with universities, journalists, and more.
Until next time.
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