Scale Fail: Define Scale for Tech Giants, Not Residents of Never Never Land

December 29, 2023

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

I read “Scale Is a Trap.” The essay presents an interesting point of view, scale from the viewpoint of a resident of Never Never Land. The write up states:

But I’m pretty convinced the reason these sites [Vice, Buzzfeed, and other media outfits] have struggled to meet the moment is because the model under which they were built — eyeballs at all cost, built for social media and Google search results — is no longer functional. We can blame a lot of things for this, such as brand safety and having to work through perhaps the most aggressive commercial gatekeepers that the world has ever seen. But I think the truth is, after seeing how well it worked for the tech industry, we made a bet on scale — and then watched that bet fail over and over again.

The problem is that the focus is on media companies designed to surf on the free megaphones like Twitter and the money from Google’s pre-threat ad programs. 

However, knowledge is tough to scale. The firms which can convert knowledge into what William James called “cash value” charge for professional services. Some content is free like wild and crazy white papers. But the “good stuff” is for paying clients.

Outfits which want to find enough subscribers who will pay the necessary money to read articles is a difficult business to scale. I find it interesting that Substack is accepting some content sure to attract some interesting readers. How much will these folks pay. Maybe a lot?

But scale in information is not what many clever writers or traditional publishers and authors can do. What happens when a person writes a best seller. The publisher demands more books and the result? Subsequent books which are not what the original was. 

Whom does scale serve? Scale delivers power and payoff to the organizations which can develop products and services that sell to a large number of people who want a deal. Scale at a blue chip consulting firm means selling to the biggest firms and the organizations with the deepest products. 

But the scale of a McKinsey-type firm is different from the scale at an outfit like Microsoft or Google.

What is the definition of scale for a big outfit? The way I would explain what the technology firms mean when scale is kicked around at an artificial intelligence conference is “big money, big infrastructure, big services, and big brains.” By definition, individuals and smaller firms cannot deliver.

Thus, the notion of appropriate scale means what the cited essay calls a “niche.” The problems and challenges include:

  • Getting the cash to find, cultivate, and grow people who will pay enough to keep the knowledge enterprise afloat
  • Finding other people to create the knowledge value
  • Protecting the idea space from carpetbaggers
  • Remaining relevant because knowledge has a shelf life, and it takes time to grow knowledge or acquire new knowledge.

To sum up, the essay is more about how journalists are going to have to adapt to a changing world. The problem is that scale is a characteristic of the old school publishing outfits which have been ill-suited to the stress of adapting to a rapidly changing world.

Writers are not blue chip consultants. Many just think they are.

Stephen E Arnold, December 29, 2023


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