REV 21 Media: What it looks like to run a small media company in today’s data and algorithm-driven structure. – Sadaf Ayaz
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REV 21 Media: What it looks like to run a small media company in today’s data and algorithm-driven structure.

Sadaf Ayaz

Media 332

Final Paper

ACCOMPANIED PRESENTATION:

REV 21 Media is a platform made especially by minority youth to share their opinions on the cultures, religions, and identities that define them. It was made to build bridges between different people with different ideas through positive conversations and enticing engagement of audiences which were unlikely to search for the content with a trendy and fun appearance. Built as a business, REV 21 was made to provide a seat at the table for all those who felt voiceless.

One of the reasons why I thought this was something I could do was because of my own background in writing. I had published a book in high school and had the privilege of meeting several talented individuals who were working on their own projects. Through the United Nations I became aware of a lot of the social issues that existed around the globe and met incredible young people who were dedicating their lives to solving them. Through Next Gen Summit—an annual event that helps to support and connect young entrepreneurs—I was connected with a whole new realm of the possibilities of combining passion with business. Through networking I was able to find several people who were just as passionate as I was over the idea of a REV 21 and so it was quick and easy to build a team. Moreover, knowing that I was majoring in Journalism, I felt I could quickly and efficiently learn whatever I did not know and easily apply through REV 21.

I could’ve created a media company that was made for Muslims. In fact, one of the criticisms I received for my book was how I had written of the experiences of white teenager who lived a life I wasn’t. It was a character and life I was able to contrive because of all the books I read. I never thought a book about a girl who looked like me and lived like me would sell. You would think that this would make me want to create a company for Muslims, yet it made me want to do the opposite. I was able to witness moments where I met individuals who had never met a Muslim in their life or had never had a conversation with one. The questions and topics of discussion were always interesting—at times almost offensive and disappointingly repetitive. Yet, I was also aware of my own bubble. Like I had not had deep conversations with a the thousands of different people and identities that existed in the world others hadn’t either. I didn’t want to create an echo chamber, rather a platform where people could stumble upon content that they were never aware of.

Daniel Boorstin speaks of the idea of “fragmentation of experience” in his book The Image (pg 129). It’s the idea that as an audience we have the liberty to choose the sections of a medium that we want to interact with while completely ignoring another. For example, it’s a normal response to switch the channel when something you disagree with comes on TV or to change to a different social media platform when one gets boring. This limits people’s abilities to connect with the world that exists a few circles outside of theirs. Moreover, with algorithms and data working against, actually in favor of audiences, the bubbles in which we all live are even more secluded and problematic. With this in mind, I had built the website with the feature of having an endless scroll of completely random articles below the initial article of contact of the viewer.

As soon as my team and I had figured out our website, we got to work. We created archives of pitches for articles we wanted to produce. We had realized an important distinction between the type of content that survived and exceeded in a world of social media. Discussed at length in Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier points out angry and negative emotions thrive greater on social media. Unfortunately, as a new business, we knew that the only way for us to reach an audience we would need the help of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. So, my fellow teammates and I researched on what worked on those platforms. Based on that, we created two categories of content we wanted to publish. The first, was content that our company was made to produce—articles that came out of our various broad categories and subcategories that we had decided before launching our site. The second, was content made to go viral mainly by inciting a reaction out of audiences.

This second category was based off of a research that studied audience engagement with social media content, specifically on Facebook, and the patterns of intentions that intrinsically created the wanted response from companies like mine. Six different intentions that lay behind why certain people engaged with content: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories. Social currency was a means for people to build a rapport for themselves online. Everyone wants to look good and by engaging and sharing content that they thought did the job, we would get people to our site. An example of a pitch we had under it was an article on how to solve poverty by creating opportunities for entrepreneurship in impoverished areas. The second intention, triggers which are articles that reflect on people’s everyday routines–habits that no one thinks much about anymore. An example was an article for triggers would be something like how the increased use of snapchat was causing an alarming increase in plastic surgery amongst teenagers. The next intention was emotion–when we care, we share. Essentially, anything that triggers us emotionally, we will engage with. Lanier emphasizes in his book about how we often tend to get emotional in negative and angry emotions, although we weren’t aware of that fact, our pitches in the emotions tab were topics that would get people angry. For example, why do we criticize women for wanting to be housewives? The fourth intention is public. Topics relating to the community like the paradox of activists and why activists need to calm down. Next was practical value articles that would have a productive impact on people’s lives like 10 important financial habits you must have as a young adult. Last were stories. People love reading stories about other people, especially those that feel very close to home. An example would be an article on what its like to have a bipolar manic attack in the middle of math class. 

These ideas, as ideas, felt profound in the moment. We thoroughly believed in the potential of the impact it would have and the momentum in which some of these articles would thrive on social media. Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned. We had been working with a young team of high school and college students. Everyone was inexperienced in journalism (including myself) and everyone understandably had other priorities which took from being able to put complete dedication to the articles they worked on. One of the biggest things we noticed was how amazing and profound the pitches seemed and how disappointing, at times, the article turned out. At some point, I had become a master at SEO and writing true but catchy (sometimes click-baity) article headlines and subheadlines. But there were times when even those wouldn’t work and we had to either scrap the article completely or publish it with feelings of dissatisfaction. This all meant our growth was even slower than we had predicted. Even when we wrote a great piece, we often didn’t get the returns we had been hoping for. Too much effort was spent on too little return. 

In his book Jaron Lanier says, “Sources of content such as news websites are discovered by people mostly through BUMMER, so such sites must game themselves to be favored by algorithms and crowds.” (66). So that’s what we did. Our solution was WordPress. We had already been using it as the system for which our website was run, but overtime we started to become more aware of the plug-ins different programmers had created in order to help people like myself. Along with trying to prepare our writers to write better articles, we began using google analytics and Yoast SEO to help us get better ranking on our articles on google. Yoast SEO was a thorough plugin which went through the article and pointed out things that lowered our SEO things. Some positives were things like having adequate word count and having outbound links to other websites. It then also pointed out things we could improve on like the keyphrase we chose for the SEO especially if it wasn’t specific enough Lastly, it pointed our outright problems that were lowering our score like the lack of internal links to other articles on our site or not having the key phrase of the SEO in our title. Yoast SEO was also helped to improve readability by pointing out if the articles’ paragraphs or sentences were too long.

One month later, something finally hit. Mona Haydar a hip hijabi rapper came out with a song called Wrap my Hijab. Western media went wild over the content branding it as a breakthrough for muslim women. A step forward for muslim women. However, a quick sweep through the comments and twitter/other social media posts would inform anyone over the commentary a large group of muslim women felt when watching that video. Haydar had created a something that was different and new, however, in doing so lots of muslims women felt she had compromised the idea of modesty in the protrayal of muslim women. Several women just could  not relate to the video and that perspective was never shared on the articles posted. It was a strategic move to publish the article Mona Haydar’s Hijab Rap Song Is Nor What We Need–we knew we were catering to a very specific audience and we would get a response (both positive and negative). 

We were right. That article received almost 70,000 views and over 3,000 shares on facebook alone. We finally saw a flicker of hope of the work we were doing to succeed. 

However, virality as Lanier points our has no value. In fact, people who believe in virality often are compromising truth, he states in his final argument. And for the most part, that is true. We were unable to replicate that level of virality without compromising the ethics on which REV 21 was built on. But we did lose part of what made us who we were. 

Lanier says, “I noticed that I’d write things I didn’t believe in order to get a rise out of readers. I wrote stuff that I knew people wanted to hear, or the opposite, because I knew it would be inflammatory.” (43) And we did the same. Although we had gone into the writing process with idea of articles we wanted to publish the disappointment with the turnout lowered our standard. On days when we had nothing to publish we published random things of low quality that had nothing to do with our website and the content we aspired to create. 

We had fallen into the footsteps of Reader’s Digest. In chapter four of The Image Boorstin speaks at length about the different ways that media and art forms were manipulated and compromised under the pressure of trying to adapt to the demands of the audience and the nature of the market. Reader’s Digest had started off with the simple and innocent goal of providing a service of summaries of books for its audience. They helped the busiest people to still be up-to-date with the latest content. However, like us they ran into a problem of wanting to increase readership and please their audience and eventually started adding fake pieces and writing their own content to build stronger engagement. The mission on which they had built their company had been compromised. Although things worked out for them as the audience was just as interested in our content and the same did happen for us, I personally felt disappointed in the direction in which our work was leading. This is a pattern I noticed in a lot of companies as I did research for REV 21 and Boorstin confirmed the hypothesis. So many companies start off with positive intentions and often have to compromise them in order to earn money. The nature of the media business has set forth a standard that makes many companies and initiatives vulnerable to changing their missions to adjust to the demands of the industry. 

After watching the Great Hack, I wondered if maybe to play by the rules of the industry required us to dive deep into playing the game. We saw how companies and people used data to increase their engagement with the right audience. They personalized content they knew would have an impact on a particular group of people. So I wondered if data is the solution? Could we take the data that these same companies with, at times, ulterior motives that are deceiving their audience, and use them for could?

I think the answer is maybe. 

One of the biggest issues we faced was how little engagement we got on social media despite having a great article and great SEO scores. We weren’t investing money into advertising the content on facebook at all. Similarly, we weren’t targeting a specific audience directly through data. Perhaps if we had the information and the money we could’ve pushed the content to the audience who thought that information mattered. We could be the good twin of Cambridge Analytica. Knowing that with human intelligence and manwork we were able to find the right audience for the Mona Haydar article, there’s a huge opportunity to do the same with computer intelligence for all the articles we have. I wonder if despite the deceit that lies in the nature of using data, we could be Robin Hoods of media and entertainment by pushing positive content to build bridges between different communities and starting conversations that matter. 

But then I find myself at a difficult fork in the road. The costs of using data intrinsically is against everything we are trying to do. How can you manipulate people to do good? The philosophical nature of the situation is daunting to approach. Does manipulating people to do good give good results? Moreover, we would need to have a large sum of money to invest into the data collection and the marketing that is required to reach our target audience. All with the  looming reality that even Silicon Valley tech geniuses have not found a way to combat the nature of the economy created in the media industry. Lanier’s points about the nature of free access to all things on the internet in the Digital Age creating hold true. Its an overhauling of an entire industry’s method of making money. Moreover, research works against our favor with social media audiences favoring strong negative emotions to engage whereas we are trying to push forth positive content that requires our audiences to think more, read more, and work for the information that they conceive. 

Perhaps what we need now is a complete overhaul of this industry. Although Lanier believes this could be solved without destroying and rebuilding the industry from scratch, I think that may be exactly what we need. Especially given that the biggest issue is that the methods of earning money in the industry is lethal to their audiences and long term success. I’m not sure if how understanding people will be of having to pay for the internet and having to pay for other tiny services. Having to pay for platforms like Netflix and HBO already has its own loopholes with most users not exactly owning their own account. And how can you possibly expect to change a luxury that the whole world is used to at a time when we’re already so deep into the mess? When the FCC tried to repeal Net Neutrality and presented a possibility of having to pay for access to content on the internet people were not happy.

Where the solution lies now is not in the hands of the creators but in the hands of the consumers as Boorstin points out. Audiences have to realize what they are consuming puts them at risk. They must become aware of the things they are compromising for the small gains they receive from social media and the internet. Only then can we actually reach a place of dignified media and moral, ethical engagement with its content. 

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🇵🇰🇺🇸 • NYC • Medicine • Author • CEO, Founder @rev21media • Actor/Model

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