5 minute read.

Less is more – the micro content ecosystem.

Paul Anthony / June 19, 2011

Posted in: Archive

Consumers of information on the web have always been fickle. With the next website being a click away, and viewers quickly scanning instead of reading – increasing engagement on your website isn’t an easy task.

Which is why some of the successful social startups on the web are all the more interesting. The amount of time, and the user growth is more than impressive. If there was one obvious observation we can take from successful startups on the web today, it’s that making things smaller, more digestible and accessible for everyone is a key trait to success.

One of the underpinning technologies and unsung heros of the micro content trend has been the humble SMS message.

The SMS protocol was an accidental success story. Initially mobile phone operators didn’t place a value on SMS as a service, with initial texts sent and delivered absolutely free. Its Finnish inventor Matti Makkonen, also failed to patent the idea before mobile operators made a bucketload of money when it was widely adopted as a quick fire communication method amongst users.

The way we communicate was irrevocably changed with its invention, and it helped both propel mobile device adoption and popularise the mobile platform for both  business and personal use.  As devices got cheaper and adoption widespread, marketers quickly realised the value, and SMS marketing was born. SMS also highlighted that conceptually ideas spread faster when they are smaller. I’m sure many of you can recall a time when information about a particular event / tragedy  came through to you on a text message, long before it reached you via word of mouth. The viral text message was around a long time before the viral tweet.

Twitter took the parameters which helped see SMS growth on a global scale to the web. Interestingly, in a reversal of traditional technology patterns, it was the mobile platform which drove innovation forward on the web rather than the other way round. As reported in an article in the La Times about the foundation of the service Jack Dorsey comments:

“It was really SMS that inspired the further direction — the particular constraint of 140 characters was kind of borrowed. You have a natural constraint with the couriers when you update your location or with IM when you update your status. But SMS allowed this other constraint, where most basic phones are limited to 160 characters before they split the messages. So in order to minimize the hassle and thinking around receiving a message, we wanted to make sure that we were not splitting any messages. So we took 20 characters for the user name, and left 140 for the content. That’s where it all came from.”

Small updates would see faster information sharing between users of the service, in easily digestible chunks. The limit of 160 characters was introduced in to the SMS protocol by its inventors, as it was the average number of characters generated by a typewriter after typing random sentences on an standard paper.  Unscientific maybe, but effective in that it not only encouraged interaction, but was an unconscious length for consumption.

Other web services have taken the micro-update concept and integrated it into their product. Facebook is an obvious comparison to make – where the majority of the user generated content comes via status updates which are small in nature. Combined with the social graph, this too has given Facebook as a platform, unrivalled viral qualities. When you aren’t asking for essays from your visitors, the effort diminishes; and as a result Facebook have accumulated much more content from the every day user who is time poor.

Again. The mantra of smaller is better rings true, and has led to exceptional growth.

Another startup which impresses me on a daily basis is Tumblr. They have managed to created a blogging platform that makes it easier for anyone to start, and it’s also easier to post content to. The minimalist ‘Tumbleverse’ ecosystem thrives on reblogging and sharing the content which others have created elsewhere. This minimalist approach is working against larger blogging platforms such as WordPress. The numbers speak for themselves, founded in 2007, Tumblr now reigns supreme with 20.9 million blog sites while  founded in 2003, WordPress powers 20.8 million sites.

They’ve won the race because they made it not only easier to get setup with an account, but more accessible to everyone. The ability to simply repost something someone else has created or curated sets them apart, and the community is thriving as a result. The audience profile is also youthful, and has managed to attract a much younger demographic. According to Quantcast – 16% of the audience are between 13-17 years old, double the 8% that WordPress reports.

Numerous articles have been written that suggest that this dumbing down in the form of micro updates is a threat to traditional blogging. Rob Walling’s analysis of the situation is spot on. The long tail of blogging is dying, leaving the people serious about the medium. I’d add to that by saying that micro blogging platforms are facilitating everyday users of the web to create content, and that’s a great thing for the web as a whole. It’s no longer a ‘geeky’ thing to run a blog or get involved with publishing on the web. Even if your content isn’t unique, as is the case with much of Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook – there’s still value to be created and enjoyment to be had from the curation and the sharing of other people’s material.

There isn’t a vertical on the web that I can think of that shouldn’t take note of the growth of these startups and see where their business can be improved as a result. Stripping back, making simpler, asking for less from you users – all the sorts of lessons that massive players on the web today have learned and pivoted on. Particularly with the continued growth of the mobile web.

The micro content ecosystem is thriving, and ‘less is more’ has never been more relevant as a concept to startups.

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