On Signal and Noise

Penelope* (not her real name) is an Instagram influencer. Companies sometimes pay her, in cash or in kind, to promote their products, hoping she will somehow influence those who follow her online into buying their products. How do companies decide Penelope is worth courting? Her follower count. There’s just one problem: it’s fake.

This article on Australian media and marketing site mUmBRELLA talks about the highly dubious, at best, metrics for online and similar digital mediums. The old measurements of reach and frequency are so easy to manipulate, and so terribly subjective, that no one seems to have any idea what they really mean. And yet advertisers keep throwing money at them, thrashing around trying to find some way to get customers to pay attention to them.

There are lots and lots of people creating free, or cheap, content that used to cost big money. You don’t need to print physical magazines or papers any more, so the barrier to entry is very low. People love to create things, and love it when other people pay attention to them, so there’s been a proliferation of online content about anything and everything. Blogs, Instagram, Youtube, Podcasts, there is so much stuff being created and distributed, largely for free.

Simultaneously, the way traditional media made money, ads, has been completely changed by Google, Facebook, and the like. They don’t sell classifieds directly any more, and in many cases don’t even sell ad space directly to advertisers. They rely instead of pay-per-click advertising distributed through ad networks that are themselves going through a major shakeup right now, for a variety of reasons. They still create content, and are desperately trying to find ways to get people to pay attention so that they might click on an ad and pay for the whole thing to keep going. It’s hard to compete with free.

The end result is a massive fragmentation of the way content, and ads, are served up to people. There is a lot of noise now, and the traditional arbiters of what was worth paying attention to no longer hold sway. Yet (with the possible exception of Google search) they haven’t been replaced by any generally applicable way to make sense of things; to separate the signal from the noise.

More Noise Means Signal Is Worth More

In this environment, the response from many media organisations (some of which I write for) has been to create more content. If the price per click goes down, the thinking goes, you need to create more stuff so that you make it up in volume. See the problem here? It’s really hard to make high quality goods at scale, so what tends to happen is the quality goes down, which makes it worth less. We end up in a downward spiral, a classic economic price war where everyone ends up competing themselves down to marginal cost of production, which is near zero.

This can’t end well.

In contrast, my thesis is that by doing the very opposite of this I can build something of quality that, relatively speaking, only becomes more valuable as everyone else’s stuff becomes less valuable.

I’ll explain.

You can automate a financial news story, because they’re basically just raw facts with a few humanish words around them. Weather forecasts have been automated for some time. When you’re just relaying information, what additional value is a human being adding? Similarly, if everyone writes basically the same “Apple released a new product” story in the couple of hours after their latest big show, what value is your story providing that I can’t get from any other one? This is the central issue of the race for attention on the new. There is no time to generate new information, or provide context or analysis, so it doesn’t happen. Instead you get a commodity news story that will be written by a computer program in a few years, if it isn’t already.

In this environment, what if you could provide something of value that no one else is providing? What if, instead of simply relaying facts you could explain what they mean? What if you provide something that is difficult to automate? What if you provide signal in a sea of noise?

The simple fact that good signal is rare, and getting rarer, suggests that it should increase in value as the noise increases. That’s why I focus on finding something that everyone else isn’t doing.

I’m not overly worried by the increase in noise, because I believe (with some justification) that I can provide something that you can’t get for free (or cheap) elsewhere. And I don’t want to spend time creating more noise when I could instead focus on providing more signal.

That’s the plan, anyway.

What do you think? Do I create signal, or noise? What would you do differently?

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One Comment

  1. I think this is why we are seeing more gimmick blog posts: X is Dead, I Bought an X and it Sucks So I’m Taking it Back, Don’t Buy X Because I Said So, Don’t Use X Because {FUD}, Don’t Use X Because {I used it and broke it}.

    These are popular posts and they float to the top of people’s RSS feeds because they instill fear or bully big names. Also, because they are shit and that tends to float.

    Then readers, chasing retweets and followers, retweet the posts because they get clicks.

    It’s like the magic of the social graph also feeds the crap of the social graph. People can’t just be great at what they do. They have to get clicks, too.

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