The Facebook news that’s been grinding up the audience development world and spitting it out over the past couple of months has hit with all the surprise and inevitability of a car crash you’ve been watching spinning towards you, without actually considering if you should move or not.
The interview Campbell Brown and Adam Mosseri did at Code Media was particularly brutal. Brown came out with some eyebrow-raising comments:
Brown said that Facebook wants to help publishers who want to be on Facebook, but it’s doesn’t necessarily need them. “My job is not to go recruit people from news organizations to put their stuff on Facebook,” she said. “If someone feels that being on Facebook is not good for your business, you shouldn’t be on Facebook.”
Her job title seems rather poor now. There was little or no sense of “partnership” in what she was saying. Come to Facebook. Or not. Doesn’t matter to us.
In love with a digital sociopath
Face it. Facebook never loved us. It had its fun, decided that the relationship was too much work, and has moved on. Oh, sure. It’s still got our number in its phone, for those moments when engagement demands a quick booty call, but we’re history. Any sense that Facebook was our friend and ally in developing a sustainable business model for journalism should be done with.
Like any nasty break-up, could it be better for us as an industry to cut ties, rather than try to be friends?
This relationship began over a decade ago, and back then we were the big beasts and Facebook was the scrappy little startup starting to challenge the News Corp-owned MySpace. Surely, with News Corp money and real adults in charge, MySpace was set to rule the world?
No so fast. Facebook was cleaner, faster and more useable than MySpace, and it was acquiring users at a rapid rate. And this small company, led by a guy barely beyond university age, looked like a great partner for the news business, one that could make the tricky business of navigating the social web a lot easier.
I remember the meeting where the slippery slope into Facebook’s clutches began for me clearly. It was a decade ago in one of those dull grey meeting rooms, with a view over suburban London, that either allow bright ideas to flourish against the drab background they provide, or which slowly deaden the spirit. And sometimes both.
We started talking about Facebook, which had recently both made itself available to the general public, and introduced the News Feed (yes, there was Facebook before the news feed). Some of my colleagues were very excited by this, but I was less so. They thought that Facebook was a great option for us to use instead of the blogs and communities we’d been building, bringing sharing updates and photos and videos together, away from the messy freeform flow of blogs, Flickr and YouTube. I was less enthusiastic from the start, fearing that what they said was fundamentally correct, but really dangerous. To bring all that freeform creativity of the web under one company, to give it a central gatekeeping role in how we consume media, would be a terrible risk.
I used the phrase “training wheels social media” in that meeting, to at least one colleague’s disgust — because that’s what it was. It was a dumbed-down version of the tools we were using to create communities of interest for ourselves, and for our titles. But unlike real training wheels, their purpose was not to allow people to learn and grow, and then move on without them. It was to trap people on the Facebook platform. These weren’t training wheels for learning, these were training wheels of infantilisation, and Facebook used them to suck up people, and trap them in a candy-coloured nursery version of the social web. Once they were happily clicking like and share, Facebook could slowly feed and grow fat on all the yummy, yummy data they were collecting.
And many journalists, like my colleagues from that meeting, helped them do it.
Over a decade later, and Facebook is the sort of omnipotent, international conglomerate (let’s remember that Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus Rift are Facebook too) that cyberpunk books and films have been warning us about for decades. They have probably a greater control over the information flow than any organisation in history, and even as the West sours on Facebook, emerging economies where internet penetration is still growing are taking to it with gusto.
Imagine if there was just one newspaper worldwide, where the editorial team decided what news the world saw. Would anyone truly be comfortable with that? Yet, that’s exactly the power we’ve handed the Facebook algorithm. That piece of code is influencing people’s perception of world events more than any editor ever has since the dawn of journalism. In less than a decade, the power relationship has shifted, and we have become the supplicants at Facebook’s altar.
And Brown and Mosseri came down yesterday to tell us we were sinners, and must repent. For the path to paradise is not through organic reach.
Facebook is a fickle and terrible god. Until recently, it has showered us with blessings: traffic to our stories, organically granted, unlike those poor marketing schmucks who had to pay for reach. It gave us money to make Facebook Lives, and didn’t seem to pay too much attention to how many people were watching, which was just as well, given how few were. It created Instant Articles just for us.
But we failed to be sufficiently grateful. We abandoned Instant Articles, and let our news crowd out more data-rich social interactions in the feed. We even dared to express doubts about the usefulness of Live. And the we had the temerity to suggest that perhaps Facebook itself was to blame for the spread of intentional misinformation, the so-called “fake news”.
We became more trouble than we were worth, and so the great god Facebook turned the face of its algorithm from us, and we were cast out into the darkness.
What so many of us missed is that Facebook was never a tool, it was a platform. It existed to grow itself as a business, rather than growing as a business by supporting the creative endeavours of others. And we were right on the cusp of the switch from the tool era to the platform era. Many of the “tools” that were popular then — Flickr, YouTube — were platforms built in a tool-like way. They were both built to allow the content you uploaded there to be shared freely elsewhere, like your own blog. The VC money was flowing away, though, in the direction of platforms. Platforms that were habit-forming. Platforms with lock-in.
And Facebook was the greatest of these. Even as everyone celebrated Twitter as the Arab spring remade world politics, Facebook was growing ever stronger, to the point where it eclipsed the blue bird of terseness. It wasn’t interested in helping you connect, it wanted to be THE place where you connected. And if people were dumb enough fucks to do that, and give Facebook all the sweet, sweet data that resulted, well, more fool them.
A building on algorithmic sand cannot stand
A VC-backed platform grows by relentless self interest, not by helping others. Once you sign up to platform thinking, you live or die by the whim of that platform. Live by the algorithm, die by the algorithm. The lesson SEO-driven business leaned a decade ago in the fires of Panda were forgotten, and once again people built their businesses in the platform sand.
The figures seem small — news would drop from just 5% of newsfeed content to 4%. Your average data illiterate journalist would look at that 1% drop and think it not too bad. But everyone else notes that it’s a 20% drop, and if a majority of your traffic is coming from Facebook, that’s ruinous. Smart businesses, of course, have always had a diversified acquisition strategy. They’re using search and social, and newsletters and chat apps and all sorts of tools to build relationships with their readers. Others haven’t. They have weeks, if not less, to adapt or die. And if your audience team has just learnt how to do Facebook by rote, by reading the “best practice” articles out there and copying an pasting the volume and timing advice, then you’re screwed.
For those who have taken the time to understand both the underlying technology and the underlying psychology, they have reason to be cheerful. There’s no reason that 20% drop in traffic needs be equally shared. If you understand how to create content that makes people respond to it — create meaningful engagement in Facebook’s terms — it’s possible you can maintain your traffic, or even grow it. And yes, maybe it’s Groups, and maybe it’s more personal interactions from journalists on Facebook, and maybe it’s a new strategic approach to your Pages. More likely, it’s a mix of them all.
But if you have the sort of smart people who can do that, they’re probably already hard at work diversifying your traffic base, with great newsletters, and subtle use of Pinterest and growing views on Apple News and…
The greatest trick Facebook played
Facebook is not the devil, because the greatest trick the devil ever played was making us think he didn’t exist. Facebook tricked us into thinking nothing else existed, and we fell for it.
The Facebook era of journalism is over. We helped Facebook grow. We helped Facebook establish itself as a major destination for video and photos and general reading. But that’s done now, and Facebook is not one for gratitude. And when the presence of misinformation on the platform is perceived as being Facebook’s fault, and that brings the ever-growing mega-corp to attention of regulators and legislators, well, it just has to go.
Sure, we could help Facebook make itself nice and localised. But what will happen in a couple of years, when Facebook is sucking all local advertising into its cavernous maw? Down will go organic reach, and local news will be back where it started — or worse.
The industry has to start weaning itself off its Facebook habit. Yes, maintain your page. Yes, experiment with Groups. But also start writing journalism that our readers want to share — and then leave them to it. Stories can go viral without any intervention from journalists.
Use the time you’ve freed up to investigate other approaches, other platforms — and your own platforms. Maybe you could start paying attention to your loyal commenters again, or building out some focused e-mails, or start a membership schemes, or…
Embrace real community. It will embrace you back
10 years ago, before the Facebook distraction, we called this job a “community editor”. And then it became a “social media editor” or an “audience engagement” editor. But maybe we need to come back to that word “community”. Journalism’s is not an abstract art. Journalists do not labour in obscurity, before starving in a garret, with their work only found and celebrated after their death. Journalism is performed for a community, in the moment. The internet is the perfect tool for helping us connect more deeply with that audience, and we showed a profound disrespect for them by outsourcing our community-building to Facebook.
Facebook doesn’t care about its users other than as abstract data nodes, as anyone who has ever suffered abuse or harassment on the platform knows. Facebook wants you to conform to it, not the other way around, as anyone who lives under an assumed name or a lifestyle outside the mainstream has experienced.
Let’s be better than that. Let’s start caring about our readers, our community again. Let’s make them part of what we do, because they’re the ones we do it for. And the first step on that road is to give up Facebook. A loveless relationship is no relationship at all.