Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
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For many emerging technologies, the bubble has burst: Where are publishers now looking for innovation?

Publishers hibernate during the crypto winter – but a few brave souls continue experimenting

The FTX crypto exchange went kaput in November, taking billions in real-world money down with it. It’s a reminder that, despite all the potential around web3 for publishers, there are still a lot of issues to be overcome. Chris Sutcliffe rounds up the year in emerging technology as part of our Media Moments 2022 report.

Some publishers have done very well out of early experiments within web3. The sky-high valuations for NFTs have generated millions for publishers collectively, who have been minting their extensive archives and back catalogues of images as the tokens. Time magazine is far and away the most successful in that regard, with sales of its TIMEPiece tokens allegedly fetching around £7.6 million. 

That was, in part, because NFTs are the shallows of web3. The barrier to entry for launching NFTs is extremely low; marry that to the ready-made catalogue to which publishers have access and you can see why so many were experimenting in that space over the course of last year and this.

The NFT bubble bursts

However, the bottom has since fallen out of the NFT market. It’s difficult to know quite how that has affected plans at many publishers, many of whom were taking advantage of the early interest to generate non-incidental revenue from early adopters. We do know, though, that in October CNN shuttered its own NFT marketplace The Vault, without much fanfare and after having been pushing the product only a month prior. This, in addition to alienating CNN superusers who had bought in, undercuts the legitimacy of publisher-backed NFTs across the ecosystem.

But it does signal a sea-change in how NFTs are seen, within and without the publishing industry. Marketers who have advised brands on how to launch NFT products are looking beyond tokens as collectibles to tokens that have actual utility, either for access or for community-building. 

2022 also saw one of the most poorly thought-through examples of a media company deploying NFTs, in a way that caused it reputational damage. In February the Associated Press attempted to sell a photograph of an overcrowded migrant boat in the Mediterranean as part of its NFT pilot programme. It sparked an immediate backlash – correctly – with accusations that the AP was attempting to profit off human misery. It later pulled the sale, and said it was “immediately reviewing [its] efforts”.

Listen: Media journalist Simon Owens joined the Media Voices podcast to talk about how the bubble has burst around many of the emerging technologies that had previously excited the industry, and where publishers are looking now for innovation. Listen below or search for ‘Media Voices’ wherever you find podcasts.

Caution around the metaverse

As discussed in our Platforms chapter, 2022 also saw companies like Meta plough deeper into the Mariana Trench of metaverse development. The company reported it has spent around $36 billion to date on acquisitions and product development around the metaverse. Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, whose company is attempting a tech revolution to distract from the ongoing Apple privacy changes undercutting its business, the public doesn’t seem all that convinced. 

The WSJ reported that Meta had aimed to have 500,000 monthly MAUs for its flagship platform Horizon Worlds by the end of 2022. In October, it was reported that “in recent weeks [Meta] revised that figure to 280,000. The current tally is less than 200,000”. More disappointingly for Zuck and crew, it also suggested that this user-base has actually declined since the Spring, in part because “most visitors to Horizon generally don’t return to the app after the first month”.

Other metaverse platforms are faring no better. Despite the big noise made around metaverse experiences on platforms like Sandbox and Decentraland, audits have made it clear that their user base is vanishingly small, with DAUs on Decentraland hovering around 8,000 as of October.

Despite that, some publishers have continued to experiment with metaverse platforms over the course of the year. Vogue Business, for example, held its Vogue Business and Yahoo Metaverse Experience on a virtual island in partnership with Yahoo and Dept. The event took place in March, on the Journee platform, though Vogue Business’ senior European editor Kirsty McGregor told me the publisher itself is platform agnostic.

And it is also the case that some metaverse experiences have outperformed expectations. Nikeland, for example, a test case in whether players will engage with branded experiences on Roblox, has received 21 million visits (though further analysis needs to be done on spending in the space, returning visitors etc).

Regardless of whether or not the hype is justified, the ‘metaverse’ is changing organisations. Some companies are already introducing Chief Metaverse Officers (though what the role’s acronym will end up being is undetermined). However, as our own Peter Houston has pointed out, the scale of job cuts at tech companies means that the rate of experimentation is likely to slow. Without those experiments, publishers will in turn have fewer opportunities and less impetus to jump on the bandwagon.

AI’s coming of age

Finally, while as subject to Amara’s Law as any of the web3 activations, AI for publishers has quietly come of age in 2022. While we still see the occasional ‘this article was written by a robot – can you tell?’ fluff piece, for the most part is AI is now humming along within publisher’s newsrooms. Efforts like JournalismAI from the London School of Economics will undoubtedly continue to advance the tech over the course of the next few years.

This chapter is an extract from our Media Moments 2022 report, sponsored by Poool and published in partnership with What’s New in Publishing. To read the full report including case studies, key facts and more, please fill in the form below:

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