Aggregation Theory, Virtuous Cycles, and Nitter

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In 2015, Ben Thompson first proposed Aggregation Theory in an article by the same name. He argues, in short, that the internet “has fundamentally changed the plane of competition,” in that in our era, “the most important factor determining success is the user experience.” Why is it then, that YouTube and Reddit and Twitter all… suck?

The answer, I believe, lies just a sentence later in the article:

… the best distributors/aggregators/market-makers win by providing the best experience, which earns them the most consumers/users, which attracts the most suppliers, which enhances the user experience in a virtuous cycle.

When YouTube first launched in 2005, it provided users with a vastly better experience than anything else available at the time. No longer did you have to download videos via BitTorrent or ftp (or however else one procured elephant videos back in the day): now you could stream them on the web.

17 years have passed since then, and the world is a much different place. YouTube is the king of video on the internet. And yet, your browser’s default <video> tag provides a way better experience than the slow and clunky YouTube player.

The story is much the same for similar giants. Reddit was founded alongside YouTube in 2005, Twitter a year later. Both websites are slow, practically unusable on mobile, and heavily limited for those without an account.

One would think that if success was truly predicated on a better user experience, such glaring flaws would lead to other platforms “winning” by simply providing a better UX. We can see glimpses of what this might look like with alternative front-ends, like teddit and Nitter, which wrap around the existing platforms while massively cutting down on bloat – providing an objectively better UX. Nevertheless, YouTube and friends remain on top.

The pivotal realization here lies in the second half of Thompson’s paragraph quoted above: the idea that having a better UX grows the initial userbase of an aggregator, and that having those users enhances the experience for future users (who further improve the experience, attracting more users, and so on and so on).

YouTube and Reddit and Twitter had a better UX than their competitors in the early 2000s, and attracted millions of users in the ensuing decades.

Now the moat is too big for alternative platforms to overcome – no new startups have yet built a user experience more attractive than YouTube’s 2.5 billion users.