On January 12, Facebook announced that it would begin to de-prioritize news publishers and their stories in users’ News Feed over highly engaged-with content shared between friends and family. In December, the social network began spinning down its efforts around live video and the news video that publishers had been pushing. The message is clear: in the messy news landscape of a post-Trump world, Facebook would like to distance itself from the ugly stuff. The stuff it doesn’t understand. The stuff it obviously can’t control.
This is not news to anyone who has been paying attention. This writing has been on the wall for a very long time.
I am fortunate to be able to say that we launched The Outline after the honeymoon was over with social networks. As I wrote in 2016, no amount of partnering with social media players was going to save publishers from the painfully hard work of making something of value for actual human beings. At best those networks would provide a temporary boost, an incentive to invest in their experiment. Publishers did so out of fear, or the inability to see that what is good for Facebook is rarely good for the media or the flow of information in the long run. Facebook makes money off attention and data, and it doesn’t care where that attention and data are delivered. It just cares that they manifest. And manifest they did, as publishers’ hungry mouths gaped open when Facebook came calling with its empty calories: do this for us, and you can win.
No one won but Facebook. The promises to publishers are drying up, or changing so dramatically they no longer apply. The promise of Facebook (what little it had) as a way to “connect the world,” looks emptier with each passing moment. The social network wants to expand, brutally, inexhaustibly, endlessly — lurching ever forward to more eyes, more time, more data, and more money. A more perfect internet, the kind that looks and feels just enough like the real thing, just enough to make some money, but without all those sharp edges. A nanny state with fringe benefits.
The social network wants to expand, brutally, inexhaustibly, endlessly.
To do so in today’s scary-ass news climate, the service has retreated into safe, light, emotional, “personal” content. It will serve you the sappy, the heartfelt, the friends and family crosstalk — but it will downplay bad news. Real news. Fake news. Partisan news. Publisher’s stories. Journalist’s stories.
Yet here’s a truth I think will become increasingly self-evident, especially to Facebook:
Publishers don’t need Facebook. But Facebook needs us.
Facebook, despite all its best intentions, is still just a dumb pipe — a thing that delivers, not the thing itself. The pipe must be filled up, yes, with stuff like groups you belong to and photos of new babies, yes with Messenger conversations and events and fundraisers. But information is currency, and what is valuable to most people is to know what the fuck is going on in the world and to try and understand it. That doesn’t go away because Facebook wants to keep its hands clean. It simply goes somewhere else. Even the market had a negative reaction to this news, stripping around $25 billion off the network’s market cap following the announcement. I don’t think that’s a fluke — I think Facebook doesn’t know what its product really is.
Mike Isaac, writing for The New York Times, put the decision like this:
The social network wants to reduce what Mr. Zuckerberg called “passive content” — videos and articles that ask little more of the viewer than to sit back and watch or read — so that users’ time on the site was well spent.
“We want to make sure that our products are not just fun, but are good for people,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “We need to refocus the system.”
For Facebook, it’s bad if you read or watch content without reacting to it on Facebook. Let that sink in for a moment. This notion is so corrupt it’s almost comical.
For publishers in 2018 — hell, for people — this is a rare opportunity, and we’d be pretty stupid to waste it.
Facebook will soon realize it can’t be what it wants to be with baby pictures alone. With all of its fantastic, monopolistic holdings (hi, WhatsApp and Instagram and TBH and probably HQ soon), it still can’t deliver a big chunk of the thing that its audience actually wants: stories that help them understand and navigate their world. Sure, it will bring you the stuff cable TV rejected on its Watch channel, and it will let some sliver of emotional Jimmy Kimmel monologues into the mix, but it can’t be the news... and people need the news now more than ever.
Charlie Warzel at BuzzFeed sums up some of the disconnect between the staff at Facebook and the humans who use the service itself:
As of late Thursday evening, [the change in the News Feed] hadn't even really registered on the company's internal Q&A board, which was preoccupied with other things, like questions hoping for a Facebook foray into cryptocurrency, and queries about exit interviews and AI chatbots.
As they have for years, Facebook’s changes are going to transform how the media landscape will look — and what burns down (and what we rebuild) will be a reflection of this moment. Here’s how things are likely going to go: in 2018 and 2019, major publishers who have been built largely on the back of Facebook’s algorithms will be sold off to massive conglomerates at a number far lower than their fantasy valuations suggested. Medium sized publishers who hadn’t yet become the “CNN for millennials” or “BuzzFeed but more woke” or whatever, will be sold off for even less, or for parts, or will die an ugly, fast death. Those companies relied on Facebook most of all, with reports of some deriving as much as 80 or 90 percent of their monthly traffic (!) from the social network. Many of them are the worst offenders when it comes to gaming Facebook’s system. Zuckerberg is not throwing those businesses a lifeline any time soon.
Frankly, any publisher relying on Facebook for survival fucked up.
Frankly, any publisher relying on Facebook for survival fucked up. But there’s a flip side to this. There’s the opportunity for outlets willing to rely less on social networks to set their fate, publishers who have diversified their traffic sources, who have pushed back on Facebook’s News Feed carrots, who have built (or are building) brands that resonate with audiences beyond what can be bought or given. Value not gifted by Facebook could be a very good thing for publishers. (And yes, I get that I’m also talking about The Outline, which is fighting for its right to survive in a very uncertain landscape every single day.)
So those of us who do make it through the Psychotic Media Bloodbath of 2018 (I just coined this, please give me a royalty whenever you use it) may find ourselves with something that almost never happens in technology: a do-over. And maybe this time, we will all avoid blowing it by not giving the genius tech titans every single thing they ask for, while asking for nothing in return. Maybe this time, publications won’t all genuflect when Mark Zuckerberg whispers “real-time serendipity” and we’ll remember that what we write and say is what people actually want, not Mark’s platform. Maybe this time, when Facebook tells news organizations to fire 40 writers and hire 40 video producers, everyone will realize that the experiment isn’t always worth it just because people better at the internet than us tell us so. Maybe we’ll all wise up and... get better at the internet.
Remember, Facebook is the reason “fake news” became so rampant over the past two years. Facebook (and Twitter, to be fair) is the reason hyper-partisan outrage peddlers were able to insinuate themselves into your feeds. Facebook, and its lack of understanding about what news is and how it works, made much of the mess we’re in — and profited off of it.
But Facebook doesn’t tell the stories. Someone else does that. The dumb pipes are of little value without those Someones, and Facebook knows it, or it will. It’s my belief that Facebook can’t thrive the way it has without the stories that publishers and creators put into it — and it will only be a matter of time before the company becomes aware of that truth. The trick will be to not be lured back into this false idea that Facebook has a better idea of how to do it than the Someones.
Facebook doesn’t tell the stories. Someone else does that.
There are millions of people who wake up every day and want to know what just happened, and they want to understand it, and they want to know what happens next. It won’t be every person. No one will get all 2 billion of Facebook’s users. But there is something even more valuable than a premium slot in Facebook’s VR News app (I made that up but I assume they’ll try it soon) — a real audience, with real needs, with real affinities. People who want something more substantial than soft drivel rammed into their viewports every 30 seconds. That want something more than Facebook or any other social network or any search engine can give: something real.
The internet — and the world — is not Facebook. If everyone, not just publishers, works hard enough, it never will be. We can set our own terms. We can make choices instead of having them made for us. And if the media industry was looking for a moment to shift the narrative, this is a pretty damn good one.
Facebook just gave anyone who tells stories the most wonderful gift of all. The gift of freedom.
Now, can you do anything with it?