What is Plug.Direct, what is it for and how does it work? A brief introduction to the ideas behind the new app and how it uses the platform publishing model – to amplify the voice of independent media abroad, expand the reach of small publishers at home, and promote good practice & media ethics everywhere.
As you know – if you see a news article you like on Facebook or one you find on Google, to read it you click and follow a link to the article publisher’s own site. But Facebook & Google want you to stay, not leave. So they offer news organisations the option to place their stories on their platform in full so there’s need to go direct to the original source website for the news.
In exchange it shares some of the advertising income it gets from the stories with their original creators. It’s called Platform Publishing and Facebook’s version is called Facebook Instants. Google’s version is called Google AMP.
Big publishers blow hot and cold on platform publishing. The biggest global & national players don’t like it because it buries their branding and reduces visitor numbers on their own sites. Data suggests that a reader ‘lost’ to search & social almost never ‘returns’ to the publisher’s own website. Mid-sized local publishers envy the audience data search & social collects, but they can’t use to reach targeted community readerships as well as they’d like.
But stories published as Facebook Instants & Google AMP stories load up to ten times more quickly than regular stories on regular websites – an attractive offer to the average mobile web user – and they get more readers. Google, and in particular Facebook’s algorithms are designed to find people who will be interested in your news article, based on who they are, where they are, what they like, and when, how and why they like it. And Google & Facebook’s behemoth branding and audience retention powers pose less of a threat to small publishers more concerned with quality before quantity, and put accessibility & reach before brand promotion & bulk marketing.
For people with our interests – supporting independent journalists in difficult environments for a free press – there’s another advantage.
Hack Big Social’s user model, not its code
If you get your news on smartphone, like half the world already, then platform published stories are vastly faster and cheaper in pay-as-you-go MB download. And news and you are in one of a growing list of 62 developing nations, you can get access to Facebook and its news feed free on your mobile data plan, sponsored by the Facebook Basics system. The ethical issues raised by Facebook Basics are numerous, and its impact on Net Neutrality freedoms is controversial.
But many of these countries have deeply repressive governments and strict media controls, but also massively expanding smartphone usage rates and huge, free access to news on Facebook Basic’s news feeds. We want to help more journalists and media-active community groups to get on the platform in countries on the Facebook Basics list, especially where independent journalism is threatened.
If however you are an independent journalist, freelance or member of a small news organisation in Europe, Plug.Direct – which balances access to Google AMP & Facebook Instants in a single publishing package – is still just as easy to use, and just as potentially advantageous. Fiction & non-fiction writers self-publishing on digital platforms like Amazon are already significant players in the e-Book market. Local businesses like bars, dog groomers, sports clubs and bakers thrive on the localised markets Google & Facebook foster: Why can’t self-publishing local journalists and small community media use platforms to similar advantage?
A simpler solution in mind
In theory Facebook Instants and Google AMP make it much simpler to get your stories to the people you want to reach and want to read your work. In practice it’s a substantial commitment in tech & admin time. And you have to pay, even if you make some of the money back from the advertising attached to a popular story. Plug.Direct is a simpler, ‘pay-as-you-go’ solution for small media and independent journalists.
The plugs are the payment. You buy a plug at €5 each and you use it to promote your story across Facebook & Google . One plug will get your story to scores of specially chosen readers, two plugs to twice as many, three plugs to three times, and so on. Think of plugs as vouchers.
Here, I can use up to four plugs or €20 worth to promote the story again to another story or the same again. Or I can go ‘all in’ and use all 14 available. The idea is to use the Facebook & Google algorithms to find more people with a potential interest in your story, so they can get the chance to read it.
The app’s algorithm learns from the analytics, so if you plug the same story again, it will use the results to send it to more receptive audiences. The trick is to pick your moment when you judge the moment right, then check how your story is doing and plug it some more while attention is rising.
Ride the algorithms. Catch a wave of public interest in your work by pushing it out to new audiences, as Plug.Direct detects them emerging.
The app also attaches advertising to the story for you. You get a cut from the money earned – not much for most users, but a bit. The money that you get back is converted into plugs and the plugs added to your account balance. Supporters of good journalism can contribute plugs to news organisations whose work they respect, especially in countries where distribution of conventional news is difficult or obstructed.
The screen tells you that the stories that you plugged earned €1.21 from 234 interactions with the page that included 21 ad clicks. That earned money is added to your account. When the total reaches €5.00 you get another plug added to your account.
Here in this example, as you can see, I have 12 plugs, which at €5 each comes to €60. If you are falling short, just click the top up button and buy some more plugs. As many as you like, up to a maximum of 20 a day, or €100 worth.
The plugs will be used on Facebook Instants, or Google AMP. It’s very much not a Facebook or a Google product, despite the donation Google has made towards Plug.Direct’s concept development from its Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund. Both corporations are of such size, they come with an organisational unwieldiness than can make them unreliable, inconsistent business partners. Plug.Direct is designed to adapt iteratively to changes in corporate practice, second by second, by responding to changes in reach and performance.
Independent journalists working within their elaborate information ecosystems must learn to hack Big Search & Social’s user models, not their code. The independents that succeed will be the ones that can ride the system, not depend on it. We aim for a capacity to adapt quickly to the kind of rapid and unexpected changes in Facebook & Google’s terms, technical permissions and trading practises that routinely trip up the pair’s business partners.
What are the GP&P Scores, and why does Plug.Direct need them?
You’ve heard of Fake News on Facebook, right? The Plug.Direct GP&P (Good Practice & Provenance) Scores are a partial answer to this problem and a quality benchmark for the app’s users. It’s designed to make it difficult for Fake News writers to use the app, by blocking the anonymous users (or bots) and fly-by-night spoofers that post most Fake News stories.
The app’s spider crawls the app user’s website for evidence that the writer is a known person – that he or she is who they say they are. It looks for Twitter accounts, website registration details, links to other sites, and 50 other specifics that measure indicators which on the balance of probability means that the writer is legitimate – their actual story aside.
So the app also tests the author’s story as well, by looking for Good Practice – evidence that the story has been professionally presented and sourced. Here the app ticks off a further list of 50 specifics evidencing good journalistic practice – fair copyright declarations, use of appropriate credits and captions on attached media, consistent metadata, working “contact the author links” – collective evidence that, on the balance of probability, suggests that the author is a professional. (A third phase of development proposes a machine learning enhanced test of the story’s use of sources, level of attribution, and another layer of provenance placing it among stories on the same subject from other news outlets.)
Added up – that’s the Plug.Direct GP&P score, X out of 100. As a journalist you can improve your score by adopting good journalistic practices – we’ll show you ways. The app recognises professionalism and raises (or cuts) the score accordingly. If you score less than 33, the app won’t publish your story. It is competitive, but the way for a journalist to join the Plug.Direct community and top the list is to adopt more ethical practices and write better-sourced, more accountable and up-to-date stories, judged by transparently applied criteria.
Sign up for an Autumn 2017 beta test account at the Plug.Direct website.
Plug.Direct’s initial concept development is supported by a grant from the Google Digital News Initiative’s Innovation Fund.