Look at Tyler Brulé… Is he inspiring newspapers to escape social media?
Wait, are blogs making a comeback? Is this the end of the printed newspaper? Do actual powerful people use social media? Why is the colourful bath soap maker Lush suddenly exiting social media? And, who, for goodness sake, is Tyler Brulé?
It’s all a mess out there, I tell you.
While there is an outstanding blast of mesmerising anecdotes to suggest that newspapers may indeed be dying — because no one is buying them, more people now rely on those same newspapers to validate what they read on social media. What a brilliantly nonsensical situation we have successfully created with the lot of Facebook and its cousins!
By ‘democratising’ content creation for everyone, the social networks did a singular good— of course. But by a barely perceptible flick of their backhand, they’ve also made thousands of people grossly ill. By ‘ill’, I refer to the pandemic of depression which the youth have been reporting after being subjected to the algorithmically-triggered scroll-addiction on the self-comparison machine that is Instagram and co. HashtagMentalHealth.
This state of affairs is what you might call the social media conundrum.
One: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram do open to you the world of free commerce and free speech. You know you have tons of local models to cite here — Mr Macaroni (Debo Adedayo), Taaooma (Maryam Apaokagi), Eva Florida. But, as a content consumer, if you’re not careful, you may end up killing yourself.
Two: That any faceless Instagram blogger can push POST means that genuine news may be hard to define. What is journalism when there are no ombudsmen and social responsibility, and anyone can run wild with made-up stories generated for Likes or just to troll the universe?
Three: You might think you need social media because that’s where you’d find everybody, especially the youth who are, you get it, addicted to it. But, because of Three above, to be found credible there, you must obtain validation from the legacy media — the ones that may currently be on their last legs because nobody is buying what they’re selling.
Which brings me back to Tyler Brulé, 53, the Canadian founder and publisher of the elite global affairs and lifestyle magazine Monocle. Mr Brulé has no social media. Has no desire to open one, not for himself or his business. If you want to read Monocle online, you don’t go to Twitter, you launch monocle dot com.
Brulé’s three-dimensional argument against social media is about community, advertisement, and exclusivity. Regarding community, he reckons that having a comment section will adulterate the magazine’s voice and possibly suggest low self-confidence in the publishers. On advertising, he sees social networks as co-jostlers for ad dollars; so, if he puts his content on, say, Facebook, he may be enabling Facebook at a fatal cost to Monocle. As for exclusivity, his thinking is that magazines should maintain some form of snobbery.
Here, these are three quotes from a rare interview with Brulé to support his widely-polarising position:
Community: “Editorially, I think inviting a lot of chat into the conversation dilutes your brand. Yes, you think you’re close to your audience because you’re managing it digitally, but when you invite and create a platform for comment you also create corner or quadrant for detractors.”
Advertisement: “A lot of independent publishers have used Twitter to raise awareness about the brand and talk about everything they’re doing…. The problem with that is that it’s largely been the media that has created what Twitter has become. Media are companies are finding that advertisers are spending their budgets on Twitter. What you’ve done as a publisher is aided and abetted the competition. My view is, why should I fuel the Twitter machine? I would be the one who helped be being about my own downfall.”
Exclusivity: “Good magazines are a bit mysterious. Of course, a lot of these magazines are on social media, but they’re not revealing too much. If they do, they denigrate what magazines can do well…. The great thing about magazines is that they are contained and considered, and good magazines have a very clear tone.”
Naturally, the other side — the publishers who have embraced social media as the wings upon which their business flies — reject this manner of thinking, because it may create an “echo chamber” and, in the current age of participatory journalism, exclude the audience from, um, participating.
But Monocle is 14 years old in 2021. Despite blowing raspberries in the face of popular wisdom, it has grown to such a status that many other publications now wish they were Monocle.
Granted, Monocle’s mindset could have been buoyed by its primary location: first world markets; and chosen audience: high-end, discerning world travellers and businesspeople. Because of these, you may say, is why Monocle could afford the luxury to be snobbish.
However, when people say it doesn’t do much of digital, they’re not giving it credit for the almost over-the-top website that is monocle dot com. That monumental thing is a blog, a magazine archive, a podcast streamer, a live radio platform, and an e-commerce shop.
In a 2018 interview with the marketing magazine The Drum, Andrew Tuck— Monocle’s editor, said the site hosted up to 500 films and slideshows. He then criticised “other magazines who claim to be multi-platform publications” but whose websites happened to be “the most perfunctory outing, where you can’t search the archive and it’s nothing more than a holding page.”
So, its journalism is largely powered by highbrow merchandising, invite-only events, and exclusive paid experiences. It is natural, for instance, for the magazine to host a Quality of Life conference, for which capacity is limited to150 and ticket prices set at €1500 (N700K) per head. Or it could sell a £465 (N254K) casual jacket or £25 (N14K) hand soap on its website.
Speaking of soap, when Lush shut down its social media earlier this week, its product inventor and Chief Digital Officer, Jack Constantine, hinted that it might be hypocritical of the company to remain active on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter where it’d collected more than five million followers.
“As an inventor of bath bombs, I pour all my efforts in creating products that help people switch off, relax and pay attention to their wellbeing. Social media platforms have become the antithesis of this aim, with algorithms designed to keep people scrolling and stop them from switching off and relaxing,” he said.
Real or not, Lush’s red pill moment is a signal of a larger movement. Doubt in social media as the magic bullet for publishers and marketers is growing and it appears that Monocle is having the last laugh.
These days, journalists are walking away from their day jobs to start newsletters on Substack and your favourite purveyors of journalistic content are more confident to install some sort of gate on their sites.
From The New York Times, to Fast Company, to Business Insider, to The Globe and Mail, to The Independent, to The Drum, you either drop your email address or pay a subscription fee to access the stories you’ve come for.
I wish I had more column-inches here to take you on a tour of the world of publishing, with regard to business models but I don’t.
Instead, here’s what I have: a figurative bouquet for Tyler Brulé. He’s done something good for makers, consumers and investors in journalism — and it’s worth checking out.
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.