I’m not precisely sure when, but at some point Facebook stopped being a mere social network and became the most important media company in the world.
Moreso than every editor at the world’s biggest news conglomerates combined, Facebook’s News Feed algorithm holds enormous sway over what content digital audiences see. This is particularly true among millennials, 88 percent of whom say they get their news “regularly” from Facebook, according to a survey published last month by the American Press Institute.
For that reason, publishers have become extremely sensitive to changes made to this algorithm, and yesterday was no exception when the company announced yet another tweak to its News Feed formula. And while past updates have benefited some publishers while punishing others — like the change Facebook made in December 2013 to surface more “high quality” content — this announcement is bad news for all publishers across the media landscape.
According to yesterday’s blog post, Facebook’s latest algorithmic update will “ensure that content posted directly by the friends you care about, such as photos, videos, status updates or links, will be higher up in News Feed so you are less likely to miss it.” That means users will see more posts made by friends in their News Feed and fewer posts that originate from a publisher’s brand page. So for example, if I login as Pando and post this story to our Facebook page (Follow us! Or don’t!) it is less likely today than it was yesterday to appear on our followers’ News Feeds — even though they’ve clicked “like” on our page and therefore presumably want to see updates from us.
What’s more, Facebook will de-prioritize in the News Feed stories about friends “liking” or commenting on other posts. In my experience, this is one of the most common ways I discover publisher pages on Facebook. For example, I’m not likely to seek out the Facebook page belonging to Grantland. But if I see friends “liking” the stories Grantland posts, not only might I click on those stories, I might even follow Grantland myself. In any case, the new algorithm tweak cuts off yet another method for discovering content that originates from a publisher.
Like all of its updates, Facebook says it made the change after collecting user feedback indicating that “people are worried about missing important updates from the friends they care about.” Well, if you word a survey question like that, of course users will say they don’t want to miss it when “friends they care about” post “important” things. But based on Facebook’s strategic ambitions as a company, I suspect there’s something else driving this update, beyond merely Creating a Better User Experience™.
Like I said, any story I post to Pando’s Facebook page will now be less likely to appear in our fans’ News Feeds. That’s a drag because, like all modern digital media publishers, we’ve become accustomed to — though thankfully not dependent on — receiving a not insignificant amount of traffic from Facebook.
So if this traffic has declines thanks to the latest News Feed tweak, how might I make up for these lost pageviews? For starters, we could pay Facebook to promote Pando’s posts, thus artificially propelling them up the News Feeds of our followers and inserting them into the News Feeds of our non-followers against their wishes.
Or, I could take it a step further. Much has been written here and elsewhere about Facebook’s plans to convince news publishers to post stories directly to the social network’s servers. The idea is for Facebook to display articles from, say, the New York Times in Facebook’s own app alongside ads from its own marketing partners and pay news outlets a portion of the ad revenue generated by these posts.
By hosting content itself Facebook stands to collect even more ad revenue and user data than it does now. Therefore the company will likely offer any incentive necessary to court big name publishers to take the leap — including offering them special placement on News Feeds or on a dedicated Facebook news page. And now that Facebook has throttled the reach of news publishers by de-prioritizing their posts in users’ News Feeds, that will make news sites all the more likely to strike these deals — or else the 88 percent of Millennials who go to Facebook for news might never see their content.
This isn’t the first time Facebook has been accused of a bait-and-switch scheme, wherein publishers that have become dependent on the platform’s traffic have little choice but to pay for promotion once they’re no longer the organic beneficiaries of its News Feed algorithm. To be sure, dropping cash for Facebook engagement is more than an inconvenience: this pay-to-play system gives the biggest and richest news organizations the ability to crowd out smaller outlets, in one of the many ways the web has become more closed-off and re-centralized in favor of big media gatekeepers.
But now Facebook wants more than money from publishers. It wants total access to their stories and the power to display them, monetize them, and collect data from the users who read them however it sees fit. And considering the extent to which Facebook is beholden to advertisers for revenue, and given its Puritanical and often hypocritical attitudes toward risque content, it’s deeply troubling to imagine a future where all journalism must pass through Facebook before reaching readers — if it reaches them at all.
Last week at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, Facebook’s director of news and media partnerships Andy Mitchell answered questions regarding accountability as his company becomes the dominant platform for news consumption. His answers, which journalism professor Jay Rosen summarized in a great piece at his blog PressThink, essentially came down to this: Facebook is accountable to users, and users alone decide what they see in their News Feed. (Disclosure: Rosen was one of my professors at NYU)
But like Rosen, I’m not satisfied with that answer. Because even if these new algorithmic changes were informed by user feedback, it’s impossible to ignore the ways these updates benefit Facebook’s own margins and those of its advertising partners — all at the expense of publishers.
Make no mistake: I don’t blame Facebook for wanting to squeeze ever-increasing amounts of money from publishers and the content they produce. Facebook is a for-profit corporation and that’s what corporations do: make money. And it certainly doesn’t owe journalists or their organizations anything.
But it’s phenomenally disingenuous of the company to insist that its every strategic decision is part of some “user-first” mentality. Because users don’t pay to use Facebook, they are not the company’s core constituency. Sure, Zuckerberg needs to keep those users around, but only in order to serve ads to them.
No, despite what Mitchell says, Facebook is not directly accountable to users and therefore it isn’t accountable by extension to the public at large, like journalists are. It’s accountable to advertisers. And the sooner news organizations realize this, the sooner they’ll stop relying so much on someone else’s platform and stop expecting to be treated like anything other than a pawn — or a checkbook — in Facebook’s pursuit of profits.