Step by step, Facebook has cut the news from its feeds. Yesterday, they confirmed that they will focus on content from friends and family while de-emphasizing news. How come? A brief history of the odd partnership between Facebook and the news industry and what it means for us.
As an early startup, we were giving our best building up both our Facebook and Twitter community. Things were going well for startups that were willing to share know-how in return for attention. At times, we had over 100’000 unique users per day on our site reading about web design and typography—through Twitter and Facebook. Then Facebook decided that we needed to pay to reach our hard earned friends and followers.
Facebook’s first big “bait-and-switch” happened in slow motion. It was a creepingly slow turning point for the so-called Web 2.0 where the Web turned from social to capital, from distributed to centralized, and from open and shared to agent Smith’s simple vision of the world.
“This is my world, my world.” Agent Smith
That slow-motion bait and switch didn’t get much attention. Little startups like ours lost their free advertisement ticket, bit by bit. So what? News organizations weren’t hit right away. Their content was free fuel for Facebook’s “newsfeed”. On the user side, hardly anyone realized what had happened.
Through the magic of some tech Jedi mind trick, it wasn’t Facebook that cut us off from our followers. It was “the algorithm”. The algorithm was both the genius and the bogeyman. “The algorithm”, helped them get away with a lot of things. And they didn’t just “get away”. They robbed the bank and went to the moon.
Facebook has a history of getting away with things. Changing the rules in their favor because they can is baked into the company’s DNA and part of its success formula. Yesterday, they just did it again. And, most probably, they will get away with it again. Everything Zuckerberg touches turns to gold.
Your Life is Ours
Facebook is known for their relaxed way of handling privacy and user settings. Before he had kids, Mark Zuckerberg openly stated that he didn’t believe in privacy. Somehow, Facebook seemed to be so important to us all that we didn’t care that they know more about us than our friends and family.
And while we didn’t care, advertisers got more interested. Because of its invasive practices, Facebook looks like a great place to advertise. The deeper Facebook digs itself into our private lives, the better advertisers can target us. Imagine you are an advertiser before you read the following lines:
Behind the Facebook profile you’ve built for yourself is another one, a shadow profile, built from the inboxes and smartphones of other Facebook users. Gizmodo
Cool stuff. The more Facebook knows about you, and the more you hate it as a private citizen, the more attracted you get as an advertiser. As terrifying Facebook’s “shadow profiles” may be for you as a person, as amazing they are for you as an advertiser. Again, read this through the eyes of an advertiser:
Facebook knows your phone ID and can add it to your Facebook ID. It puts that together with the rest of your online activity: not just every site you’ve ever visited, but every click you’ve ever made – the Facebook button tracks every Facebook user, whether they click on it or not. Since the Facebook button is pretty much ubiquitous on the net, this means that Facebook sees you, everywhere. LRB
iA advertised on Facebook. Software wants to be sold. We tried Google, Reddit, and Techmeme, and had some success with them. But, at the time, the ROI on Facebook ads was so low, it seemed like another scam. We started wondering who is paying for these click-farms. At the time, it was delivered as post stamp sized banners. Maybe we didn’t do it right. Maybe Facebook users don’t like writing as much as liking.
Advertising on Facebook
These days, advertising on Facebook is much more flexible. Maybe we should try it again. The problem is that trusting Facebook has become a challenge. It’s almost impossible to verify anything they say, except for, maybe, their revenue. They have the data. They report. We believe. If you believe everything Facebook tells you, then:
there are more 18-year-old men using Facebook today than there are 18-year-old men living on Earth. Let’s look at how that’s even possible. TNW
It’s difficult to tell what is happening inside that black box inside that walled garden. We have no other choice but to take their word. We have to trust them with our secrets, with our news, and with our wallet. We have to trust them how much fake news and propaganda they spread. How many political ads were paid in Rubels. How many fake and real profiles they have. Notably, the number of propaganda ads and fake profiles started growing rapidly with the likeliness that the government demanded direct insight into their servers. At first, Facebook users were 99% authentic. Then the percentage of fake users started to grow: The officially communicated number of fake accounts grew from [1.5% “undesirable accounts” in 2012] to 10% in November 2017 to [updated 16.5.2018] over 25% in 2018.
The profiles for iA (2K likes, 2K followers) and iA Writer (2.7K likes, 2.7K followers) exist. As so many, we have them in case. In case someone searches for us to see if we are real. In case there are some logins tied to Facebook that we couldn’t log in anymore otherwise. In case Facebook eats the Internet. We rarely feed our profiles. Most of the action comes from Facebook itself, congratulating us for the successful posts, suggesting a paid “boost”. Occasionally, someone asks us a question. And, of course, we answer. Sometimes we make a handcrafted post. In reality, though, iA’s Facebook profiles are clones of our Twitter streams. If Facebook dies, it probably dies like Myspace, as a gigantic ghost town.
Some say you get punished if you do feed Facebook via Twitter. Some people live on Facebook, from Facebook. You may have heard something along the lines of “it’s all about the groups these days.” or “Normal Facebook sucks, but the Groups are great.” Maybe it’s all our fault. We are probably just doing it wrong.
Your News is Ours
A couple of years back, after the iPad turned to not be the savior of news and Flipboard started becoming a ghost ship like Yahoo!, a lot of clients in the news industry were turning their attention to paywalls and Facebook. Some news organizations reportedly got huge amounts of traffic from the network of networks. “We need them. They need us.” No, they don’t.
Those who were not already dependent on Facebook hoped they would find a way to get more dependent. While news organizations were dancing to Facebook’s tune they neglected their biggest treasure: their own readers, or, what remained of their own social networks. More and more advertising was crammed into busier and busier Desktop-Websites that fewer and fewer would visit. While their headlines and leads continued to feed the Facebook news stream. Headlines are what most people read, so Facebook was happy. Readers were happy too because they got it all right there, and didn’t have to type different URLs anymore, just to scan a couple of headlines.
Meanwhile, not just news organizations, humanity as a whole started to work for Facebook, for free:
In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. Jonathan Taplin points out that this is ‘almost fifteen million years of free labor per year’. That was back when it had a mere 1.23 billion users. LRB
With all the 2016 hype about Artificial Intelligence, and how much AI will either free or destroy us all in the near future, Facebook now relies on a huge human force of teachers, censors, and consumers. If Facebook is how we should imagine our the AI future, be prepared for a 21st century where humans work for machines instead of the inverse.
Your Mind is Ours
Last year, Facebook started getting some very bad press—not for its sloppy handling of its users’ privacy, for ripping off Snapchat, for wasting our time, or for making us all crazy—but mainly for the predominant role they play as one of the central distributors of information during the election. Zuckerberg was quick renouncing it as “a pretty crazy idea.”
“I think the idea that fake news on Facebook—of which it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Fortune
He went bravely fought back, riffing that posts on Facebook were “99% authentic”… which may leave those who have spent some time on social networks asking: Does he ever use his own product? Is Zuckerberg real? Think about it:
Facebook is asking users to send the company their nude photos in an effort to tackle revenge porn The Guardian
It took some time until he acknowledged that, yes, they might have played a role in the election and that, okay, they would try to take care of their issues. This is where their thus far excellent PR department started getting defensive and making mistakes.
Maybe they got too close to the sun. Maybe, getting so close to being a media brand, stone cold PR doesn’t do the trick anymore. Taking a step back from news might be better for PR and better for their relation with China:
facebook’s decision to downgrade publishers in their newsfeed seems like a knee jerk reaction to the negative reputation the company has since Trump’s election and the scrutiny it has come under for its role in Brexit or the Catalonia crisis. And then there are reports of declining user engagement and there is the overall shift towards ‚private social‘ i.e. chat apps. But there is more to it. […] Wrapping too much journalism around your brand is a mistake for any platform hoping to still make it into China, which is one of Mark Zuckerberg’s great ambitions. Wolfgang Blau
With power comes responsibility (theoretically)
When you become as big as Facebook, where you have the power to filter and sort what Billions of people see or not see, want to see and believe, you start shaping what different parts of a society regard as real. If the news is chosen by popularity, journalists become marketers that feed different bubbles with what they want to see and read.
The power to shape reality comes with a responsibility. A responsibility that Facebook rejected completely even though they worked inside the political campaigns:
Suddenly, one of the most influential companies in the world—promising to connect people and change the world, while they “helped anti-refugee campaigns in swing states”—is now just a technology provider. Or, as Sherryl Sandberg put it famously:
“At our heart we’re a tech company; we hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters, no one’s a journalist, we don’t cover the news,” WIRED
A company that regards breastfeeding as obscene and employs an army of people sifting through info-filth rejects all responsibility under the pretext that they don’t want to “censor.” Just being an engineer is more profitable than taking responsibility. Responsibility is pricey, as they soon noticed:
In April it announced plans to use artificial intelligence to prevent videos that violate the company’s policies from being seen. A few weeks later, it announced plans to hire another 3,000 people worldwide on its community operations team to review sensitive material such as violence, hate speech or child exploitation. Adweek
In the meantime, organizations whose core identity is to take that very responsibility followed every movement of Zuckerberg’s carrot. They added his Like buttons everywhere, they built instant articles, and then fell for the ridiculous 555th iteration of the old tune called “The future of the Internet is video”; this time it was live-video. The more docile the news organizations got, the more blindly they followed the dictate from FBHQ, the worse they got treated.
Then started self-humiliating themselves: Buying ad space on Facebook under their own name and reselling it to their clients that booked native ads on their sites. And their elevators James Last played the Eagles’ “Desperado”. By now, most publishers completely depend on Google and Facebook.
GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic. Stalz
New! Less News on Facebook
The bigger you get the quicker things get out of hands. After the election, the Democrats were looking for someone to blame for their surreal defeat, so they put their sight on Silicon Valley. The danger of regulation and anti-trust laws doesn’t just come from the left. Steve Bannon believes that “the government should regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities. ‘They’re too powerful. I want to make sure their data is a public trust. The stocks would drop two-thirds in value.’”
It didn’t take long, and Facebook promised that they will clean up their fake news streams to avoid regulation. Experiments with fact checking failed soon. Fact-checking is not a good business. Giving people what they desire is. It’s faster and easier and more lucrative to lie. It’s expensive and tedious to prove a lie to be a lie. But lies are dirty. They stain. Lies come back to bite you. And so does the business with lies. Maybe getting out of news would be smarter to begin with.
Faced with perhaps its first ever existential crisis—the weight of being considered a “media company,” and all the responsibilities that come with it, including being blamed for the rampant spread of “fake news,” a Russian psyops campaign, and the tampering of a US election—Facebook has decided it’s not cut out for the news business. Motherboard
Then Facebook doesn’t have to deal with this type of responsibility. The users won’t miss news much:
…most are already seeing only a very limited amount of journalism in the News Feed. About 75 percent of users reporting seeing either just 1 news story in their top 10 News Feed posts or none at all. NiemanLab
Coincidentally, Facebook had already announced that in the future they would focus more on “community”. You know those cool groups you’ve heard about. Groups rather than news streams.
Facebook will separate space for news after they said that this was just a local experiment. Will news organizations have less visibility? Facebook’s PR these days sometimes borders on self-satire:
“Does this mean you are eliminating Page content from News Feed? No. This update is not the same as the recent tests where all Page content was moved to the Explore Tab. Page posts will still appear in News Feed, though there may be fewer of them.”
In case you’re not trained in cutting PR wood: They will not completely “eliminate” news (no one thought that anyway) but show “less”. Will hurt the business of news organizations? You bet, but who cares? Will it hurt Facebook’s business? Probably, at least a bit. So why do they go this way?
Next Wednesday, Facebook is set to appear at another hearing on Capitol Hill, along with Twitter and YouTube, about the online spread of extremist propaganda. New York Times
News is mostly bad news.
Facebook says all that pesky news in your feed is making you cranky. Also, fake news is hard to fix. So let’s get rid of news in your feed!— Audrey Cooper (@audreycoopersf) January 12, 2018
I cannot overstate how much Facebook is just screwing our news operations and our democracy over and over and over. https://t.co/TFQ5NlBqEn
And the worst news for Facebook are regulation and the anti-trust hammer. Are antitrust laws the only thing that stands between Facebook and their Napoleonic vision of World Wide Web domination?
Going back to little iA and to that moment of truth where Facebook decided to cut us off from our followers… Why did no one protest? No one cared. Why did no one care? No one knew. “Brands” noticed that they were not visible. Small organizations like ours noticed, too. But our friends and followers didn’t notice they got cut off. They thought we had left. iA just didn’t appear anymore. The few techies who noticed because they heard something probably thought “it’s the algorithm”. News organizations were kept in the stream. Then, bit by bit, news organizations got cut off, too:
once, my mom asked why Motherboard stopped using Facebook. We hadn’t, but for months Facebook didn’t show a Motherboard article on her news feed even though she “likes” the page. Motherboard
Now, it seems, news organizations are going to be cut off hard from their readers, and readers are going to be cut off hard from news on Facebook. This comes at a time, where a lot of people blame the messenger. Where a lot of people believe that not reading the news and doing their best in their community is a better way than caring about things we can not influence. You believe that, too, right? Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.
What matters is this
Facebook’s move will probably work again. Mark Zuckerberg outsmarted everyone for years. He may sound a bit confused and dorky and uncomfortable at times:
…but, clearly, he has a hell of a brain, he is a hell of a fighter and, so far, he always won. He has control over his company and commands financial and human resources like few other people. The best designers, smartest business strategists, brightest economists and an army of super coders work at Facebook. To top it all: Zuckerberg has milky ways of data to know ahead of time what move will work and what won’t work. Facebook can only beat itself. We have no chance. Unless the government steps in.
What about the people working there?
What about the responsibilities of coders, managers, designers at Facebook? People that work at Facebook love their organization. They work hard, and they work in harmony with some of the most talented people in the world. They have the coolest offices. And they earn well. Deservedly. They are the best of the best. They are the nicest people. Mostly.
They think the recent accusations are not entirely fair, but they acknowledge mistakes. Zuckerberg himself is nice, wants nice things and he has acknowledged that they need to improve. There are slips, but PR is working overtime to fix the Facebook image.
This year, Zuckerberg even put aside his official personal growth program and declared that:
My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues. We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools. If we’re successful this year then we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory. Mark Zuckerberg
He understands that the current internet monopoly shared between four or five companies is be against the very idea of the Internet but may pose political, social, and economic risks:
One of the most interesting questions in technology right now is about centralization vs decentralization. A lot of us got into technology because we believe it can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in people’s hands. (The first four words of Facebook’s mission have always been “give people the power”.) Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force.
But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it. Mark Zuckerberg
With Great Power Comes Great Monopoly
That Facebook is one of those four monopolies may be implied in his statement. It is not explicit that Facebook itself is the centralized corporate completely intransparent force he describes as the problem he wants to solve. Let’s be clear here: Facebook is the centralized black box in the middle of the walled garden. Facebook is the dominant mobile platform and King on information monopoly hill. Look at the world’s top social networks:
- Facebook (1.9 billion users)
- Facebook’s WhatsApp (1.2 billion users)
- YouTube (1 billion users since 2013)
- Facebook’s Messenger (1 billion users since 2016)
- WeChat/Weixin (889 million users)
- QQ (869 million users)
- Qzone (638 million users)
- Facebook’s Instagram (600 million users)
- Twitter (319 million users)
- Weibo (313 million users) Newsweek
Improving Facebook or solving the problem Zuckerberg describes would mean ripping Facebook apart, tearing all of its properties down and rebuilding everything completely.
So What is The Deal?
It may be that what is behind most of Zuckerberg’s promises is the desire to be a good man or father. It may be that the fear of regulation is the driving force. It may be a mix. Improve, feel good about yourself, stay self-regulated and avoid the antitrust hammer. Having Facebook regulate itself may not be the most efficient solution. For Zuckerberg, avoiding regulation may be the real goal not only of 2018 but for the time being.
My theory: The FB feed changes have less to do with the mental well-being of users, and more with the well-being of FB.— Aron Pilhofer (@pilhofer) January 13, 2018
With midterms looming, news just isn’t worth the hassle. Another round of “fake news” stories, investigations, Congress up in your grill? Just not worth it.
Everything that Facebook does now and in the future has to be held against the light of regulation and antitrust laws. Zuckerberg is ready to make some big sacrifices to avoid the governmental beatdown. Cutting news organizations out of the main feed already cost him 3.3 Billion. He knew that beforehand. He also knew that news organizations would not love him for his big change of mind and attack him even more. But compared to having the government step in and break up the Facebook Kingdom, 3.3 Billion and a couple of angry journalists is a risk worth taking.