Last Friday, Facebook’s Head of News Feed Adam Mosseri announced that Facebook will begin prioritizing content created by friends and family over content from the media, brands and other Pages since space in the News Feed is limited. This is a good long-term move for Facebook and I hope they continue to experiment with other ways of distributing news stories, but the announcement may mark the end of an era of opportunity for the news industry. The media’s reaction so far (BuzzFeed, The Outline, New York Times) suggests that this is yet another example of how Facebook has ruined journalism by pulling another bait-and-switch, depriving the media of access to their audience, which is fair but missing an important point. Facebook has actually helped keep the mainstream news industry relevant for far longer than they would otherwise have been.
What if Facebook didn’t exist?
Today, Facebook has a monopoly of our attention. However, what if this was never the case?
In the early days, people were excited about the Internet because of its potential to help the little guys compete with the giants. Anyone can start a website and immediately begin vying for user attention against traditional media giants like the New York Times. However, long tail websites weren’t interesting and they were difficult to discover. The mainstream behavior that emerged was to access the web through portals like Aol and Yahoo!, which meant the portals were responsible for picking the content for us to consume. As a result, web portals mostly featured well-known, traditional media brands from the offline world. This worked out well for everyone. Portals like Yahoo! needed credible content to engage their new audience and the traditional media brands ready-made credible content and were eager to get in front of web users. Better yet, news content trained people to visit web portals regularly. The democratizing power the web was awesome in theory, but a poor user experience in practice.
As Internet usage grew and the web started to mature, portals began to feel insufficient to the average user. Google search took over as the primary entry point because it offered a better way to access all the interesting stuff on the web. Bookmarking became mainstream. Services like del.icio.us made it possible to discover content via other people’s bookmarks. Blogrolls helped users go from one awesome blog to another. RSS and RSS readers made it manageable for people to keep up-to-date with their favorite media sites. I was in college at this time, and I remember having hundreds of feeds in my RSS reader and sharing my OPML file with my friends. Surfing the web was awesome because I was discovering great websites and blogs that were much better than traditional media sources, and I had the tools to keep up with them directly. Traditional media companies did not have as much of an advantage in this version of the web where I actively curated my own experience.
And then Twitter was born. Twitter was the culmination of this self-curated web surfing experience. While search, bookmarking and subscribing to RSS feeds were useful activities, they were quickly getting overwhelming. I loved sharing my OPML files with friends and recommending blogs for them to read, but most of my friends did not care enough to learn to customize their own experience. Most of them underutilized bookmarking, relied on aggregators like Google News, and maybe installed the StumbleUpon extension for occasional serendipity. Twitter made curating your own web a whole lot easier. I could follow Fred Wilson to get his Tweets, which were more frequent and personal compared to his blog posts, and I’d still see Tweets pointing me to his new blog posts. I didn’t need to organize bookmarks. I didn’t need to use an RSS reader, and I didn’t need to be stressed out by the tens of thousands of “unreads” in my RSS reader. Twitter was about to bring the self-curated web that I loved mainstream.
Twitter raced to 50M users one full year faster than Facebook, and all of my favorite bloggers started tweeting regularly. I got on relatively early and I was sure my friends would soon follow. They never did. Instead, Facebook started doubling down on their News Feed, which turned into the killer app. Facebook now sits at 2B users and Twitter is out there trying to prove that their meager 300M users are not all bots.
Twitter didn’t lose to Facebook because they didn’t invest in lists or fix the “cold start” experience for new users. It also wasn’t because Twitter was too slow to add images, videos, and expand to more than 140 characters. Twitter lost because the self-curated web lost. At the core, Twitter was about rolling your own version of the web. Twitter accomplished that by letting you easily follow the people and entities that you cared about, and then bringing their content to you. It didn’t matter if you wanted to only use the web for sports, or if you wanted to just consume mainstream news, or if you were like me, obsessed with tech and wanted to follow all kinds of interesting people in tech.
Facebook’s News Feed had a very different vision for the web and it’s closer to the vision of web portals of the late 90s. Because Facebook was initially about friends, when they launched the News Feed, they had to figure out what to put in the News Feed to engage their users. Friends’ content were only so interesting. After a failed experiment with the Facebook platform that allowed third-party developers to push content to the feed, Facebook realized that the opportunity for the News Feed is for them to decide what goes in the feed, and that was the right move. To Facebook, people would rather have someone decide for them what content to consume. Just like how people preferred for Yahoo! to pick the websites to feature on its portal, for CBS to program the shows we watch, and for the New York Times to decide what stories we read about on Page One.
This is why I think Facebook actually helped save the news industry. Facebook sheltered the news industry from the most intense competition they’ve ever seen. The web could’ve gone in a direction where the mainstream activity is something closer to Twitter, where users proactively decide what they want to read without a gatekeeper. In that self-curated version of the web, it’s hard to believe that most people would volunteer to simply choose content from traditional news media. The news business would have to really work to compete for that privilege. Instead, Facebook became the gatekeeper, and traditional news media was the right-hand man. Together, they pumped news stories into everyone’s news feed, establishing and expanding the influence of the news media to two billion people. I think this is a hugely under-appreciated fact.
As Facebook shifts back to more friends and family content, media organizations will find that the page views are not coming back. The news industry was influential before Facebook, but not on the scale of two billion people. In the last few years, Facebook may have helped publishers reach and engage a wide enough audience that examples of successful transitions to healthier digital business models at places like the Washington Post likely have a lot to do with Facebook. However, most publications are still in the midst of that digital transition and barely surviving. My colleague Leo Schwartz asked Joshua Topolsky the difficult question this morning.
Without Facebook, how do people find your stories? Will we all move to Twitter just to follow The Outline? Are we going to rely on Flipboard and Apple News as the new entry points?
On the “problem” of Fake News
There is a deeper point here to help explain Fake News problem. To the extent that Facebook caused Fake News, it has to do with the level of scale and intimacy that’s attached to news in the Facebook era.
I think it’s bad to assume that people want to consume news to the level of intensity that I think the makers of news would like to believe. While services like 24-hour cable news stations, Yahoo! and Facebook definitely helped pushed news on to the mainstream, it doesn’t mean that the users were actively seeking to consume news. It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes news is just there as great filler content to help engage end users.
Growing up, I never enjoyed reading the news and I still don’t. Some people I know talk about wanting to develop a news reading habit like they want to develop an exercise regimen —because it’s not easy but sold to us as a good thing to do. That’s why parents and teachers used to make us read the newspaper regularly. If it were as easy as watching YouTube, they wouldn’t have to. I’d guess that most of us pretend to care about the news and actually still need a lot of work to improve our reading comprehension scores.
However, even if you aren’t actively seeking to consume news. News finds you because of Facebook. Facebook is delivering news at an unprecedented scale, and they are doing it in a very intimate way through our mobile devices and contextualized by our friends. That is why we seem like we are not prepared for it. We are not. Fake news is not the problem. The problem is news literacy and intimacy.
We’ve never seen an entire population forced to grapple with the news every day, multiple times a day, during our best and worst moments. For the first time, news can easily get personal and emotional in the context of friends. For the first time, we are required to get good at reading between the lines and critically evaluate every claim. We are not prepared.
So where do we get our news from now?
I don’t know, but I’m sure Facebook will continue to promote news articles that your friends share because they need to drive engagement, so the change might not even be noticeable. I am still obsessed with Twitter and I think they found the right balance of mixing both real-time and algorithmic feed. I’m starting to miss high-quality blogs, but I’ve filled that void with podcasts, newsletters, and YouTube channels. reddit is growing into a dominant force as well. While the self-curated web has lost for now, there’s still a lot we can do if we want to be an active consumer of the media. I’m optimistic to see what the future holds.
It’s interesting to think about a world where Facebook didn’t exist. Some other algorithm-based content aggregator adept at engaging the end user at scale might have taken its place. This alternate reality already exists in China with Toutiao, a Flipboard-like app but with Facebook-level dominance that has commoditized publishers just like Facebook, but to an even greater extent that A.I. is writing articles instead of humans.
Thanks Regina Wong, Richard Lo, David Tran, Ruby Lee, Liisa Sailaranta and Yvonne Leow for reading a draft of this post.