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Why is the media so afraid of Facebook?

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It's all going to be okay, unless it isn't

This year, in lieu of the traditional Best Of Lists, we thought it would be fun to throw our editors and writers into a draft together and have a conversation. Here are Nilay Patel and Casey Newton discussing the hopes and many anxieties felt by the media as their industry becomes increasingly reliant on platforms. This year we learned that everyone in media is afraid of Facebook, and Snapchat is still trying to grow up. How do we pay for media? How is it distributed? What is a media brand?

Casey Newton: By almost any measure, Facebook had an impressive year. Its revenue was up more than 40 percent in the last quarter, its stock price is a third higher than it was a year ago, and it dominates our attention on mobile and desktop devices. More than a billion people are now using Facebook every day. And even as it dominates the present, it’s made some prescient-looking bets on the future — particularly on messaging apps (WhatsApp, Messenger) and Oculus (virtual reality).

Because of its sheer size, Facebook makes lots of people nervous — its new focus on events, for example, ought to send a shiver down the spine of Eventbrite. But no one was more nervous about Facebook in 2015 than the media, which relies on it heavily for traffic and audience growth. Most publications saw their traffic referrals from Facebook decline this year. At the same time, Facebook introduced its own fast-loading "instant articles" format — which offered publishers the promise of more traffic, in exchange for less control over how their pages look.

The promise of more traffic, in exchange for less control

Our best alternative to all this is a world in which publishers embrace the mobile web — but the mobile web sucks, as you yourself wrote this year. So just to start us off with an easy one here — what is the future of media?

instant articles

Nilay Patel: First, remind me: what’s Eventbrite? Is that something that should just be a feature of Facebook already?

Casey: Eventbrite is the website that answers the question: what are some deeply unpopular things happening in my area?

Nilay: RIP, Eventbrite.

Anyway, early this year I wrote a piece called Facebook is the new AOL, which I thought was a pretty simple observation, but now I think I totally undersold it. Facebook has dominated the media industry’s attention this year, because more people use Facebook than anything else. Facebook is the single most popular app on the iPhone by huge margin, according to Nielsen. If you are a media company looking to grow, you have to contend with the fact that the biggest source of new eyeballs is Facebook, and that means you kind of have to do what Facebook says. Or rather, you have to do what Facebook’s all-powerful News Feed algorithm says, and most people seem to think that means you have to make terrible garbage designed to go viral.

RIP Eventbrite

At least that’s the pessimist’s view. I am more optimistic than that! I think we are in a period of deep reckoning, but that people will always want to read and watch things that aren’t just PR or spin, and that means the critical media will always have inherent value. The challenge is making money without traditional bundles of content like newspapers, magazines, and even the old model of reading a website or blog every day.

Snapchat Discover stock

Casey: Reading blogs every day? How old are you, 50? As a teen, I get all my news from Snapchat Discover — shout out to the Refinery 29 channel, whose "The Best Movie Shopping Montages of All Time" was one of my favorite longreads of the year.

But about this unbundling that we’re living through? There are so many publications fighting for attention inside Facebook that it often feels like we’re seeing a random sampling of all of them. How will publications retain their identities when their stories are all islands in the stream — and when traffic pressures mean that many of them are covering a much broader range of subjects than they might otherwise choose to?

What is Mashable?

Nilay: I think the hard truth is that some publications will totally crumble into pieces. What is Mashable, besides the house organ of Apple PR? No one really knows, and new reports suggest that it might draw a lower sale price because it’s so hard to pin down. I think we’re going to see a lot of old media brands do a lot of embarrassing things in an effort to drive clicks back to their websites from Facebook.

Casey: Which reminds me — next year, I’ll be giving away a bunch of free iPads to registered readers. Only on The Verge dot com!

Nilay: But the upside is that the audiences aren’t stupid — people will overwhelmingly turn to the brands and voices they trust to make sense of a confusing world, and the winners of that game will probably win bigger than anyone anticipates right now. In that sense the story is just the same as ever: there were winners and losers when the media distribution landscape was just a few dials on a radio, when it was 500 channels on a cable network, and when it was a handful of blogs gunning for an RSS subscription. In the end, Facebook sends you traffic when people share your work, and the best way to make that happen is probably to make great work.

But again, I’m an optimist. Have you posted any kitty GIFs to the site yet today?

Grumpy Cat (STOCK)

Casey: I’m proud to report that my latest thought leadership GIF, This Kitten Is Too Tired To Fight For the Open Web Today, is currently burning up Chartbeat.

Nilay: How do you think Mark Zuckerberg should use his distribution power? And more importantly, who competes with Facebook to check that power?

How should Mark Zuckerberg use his distribution power?

Casey: How Facebook should distribute the attention of 1 billion global citizens daily is a more or less impossible question. No wonder they’ve given the job to an algorithm! But having the rapt attention of so many people brings with it some real responsibility. I’d like to see Facebook’s thinking around news evolve to include the belief that keeping people well informed about the world around them is part of the company’s mission. Zuckerberg has spent years talking about Facebook as the next evolution of the newspaper. But to really be the heir to the newspaper, your mission can’t stop at "making the world more open and connected." You have to make the world smarter, too.

So if you’ll pardon my hopeless naïveté here: why not do some user testing next year with people who are only getting their news from Facebook? See how they compare to a control group. And then see if there aren’t adjustments you can make to your algorithms that give people a better understanding of the world, without making the News Feed any less sticky. This could have the added benefit of rewarding accurate, high-impact, original journalism.

In the meantime, I see precious few checks on Facebook’s distribution power. There’s Google search, which still drives a lot of clicks publishers’ way, and shows how much news consumption is driven by people who are actively seeking out information. (As opposed to idly glancing at the Trending box.) And then there’s Twitter, which for all its failures still hosts a 24/7 global conversation about the news that Facebook is desperate to horn in on.

Also, don’t count out Pornhub. People love Pornhub.

PornHub premium

Nilay: I hear The New York Times is freaked out by the drop in Pornhub referral traffic last month. Strange times.

You know, I think in many ways the story of Facebook and Twitter comes down to the power of Facebook’s algorithmic News Feed, which explicitly creates scarcity — the system doesn’t show users everything their friends post, and so Facebook can demand a toll from publishers for placement in the stream. Today that toll looks like simply programming content to the algorithm, tomorrow it looks like publishing Instant Articles, and maybe next year it looks like paying Facebook actual cash.

Publishers will demand concessions

But the thing about paying actual cash for distribution is that publishers will demand some hard concessions in return — they won’t just want a flood of undifferentiated clicks back to a website, they’ll want Facebook to reconstitute their bundles and emphasize their brands so they can charge higher ad rates and make up the cost of paying Facebook. So maybe this pendulum only swings so far.

Twitter just shows you everything; it doesn’t have any of that scarcity, which is why I think people gravitate to it to find news — you can see everything. It’s a different kind of power, but one that isn’t as easily turned into money. You can see Twitter trying to introduce some scarcity with Moments, but, you know. It’s Twitter.

But I want to get back to your idea of Facebook having some editorial responsibility around what it displays in the News Feed — why? If I want to consume a media diet that is mostly NFL highlight videos and photos of tricked-out Mustangs, isn’t that my right? No one at the corner store makes me buy a copy of The New Yorker alongside Us Weekly; why should Facebook even care?

Casey: Because it’s in Facebook’s enlightened self-interest! The alternative to a world where Facebook takes the news seriously is one that looks an awful lot like Idiocracy. You think their product roadmap gets any easier once President-for-Life Donald Trump signs an executive order granting himself access to all our logins and passwords? Sure, Facebook can’t afford to be nakedly partisan — its executives’ left-center worldview is not shared by 1 billion daily users. But newspapers walked that line just fine for decades, and the resulting journalism helped to shore up our democracy. Maybe democracy will be just fine if all of us ignore politics and just keep scrolling through Mustang pics forever — but if you’re Facebook, is that really an A/B test you want to run?

Facebook stock image

But there’s another good reason for Facebook to focus on news: people love reading it! News is a daily habit that drives tons of traffic on Facebook, and the company is constantly experimenting with new ways to highlight news stories. I’m not arguing they take a heavy editorial hand here — a Facebook that only displays stories that affirm its corporate interests is as dystopian a vision as any. But I think Zuck wants Facebook to be a good corporate citizen, and part of that is going to be reckoning with its huge power to inform the world. It can seek to inform the world gently, and in less-traveled corners of the app. But Facebook should absolutely do it.

Beyond snackable micro-content

Whoops, looks like we’re over 1,800 words — well beyond the guidelines for snackable micro-content upon which the new world is built. But etiquette dictates that I give you the last word. Any pithy quotes that will make this piece more shareable? (If so, we should probably make it the headline.)

Nilay: If anything, 2015 is best summed up by two media people burning 2,000 words on Facebook Emotions only to land on Zuckerberg, take the wheel as a realistic path forward.

But whatever, we need the clicks. Here’s a GIF of a dachshund eagerly cleaning any scraps it can find from the teeth of a lion. Everything will be fine.

lion puppy gif