Facebook privacy
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The first victim from Facebook’s January media pivot came late last month as digital publisher Little Things closed. It thought it had done everything right; it was a new media darling. But once Facebook turned off the sugar hit of shares and likes, that was, literally, all she wrote.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg opened the year by saying: “One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent.”

This meant, he said, dropping “passively” consumed news for posts from family and friends.

Around the world, just about all publishers reported an acceleration in the fall of Facebook referrals that had started with earlier tweaks of the algorithm. Even for a major digital player like Buzzfeed, this was serious. For purer Facebook players like Little Things, it was fatal.

Three weeks later, Facebook announced it would make some space for local news. In late February, it abandoned the hated (by publishers) “explore” trial which separated media from other posts in four designated countries. This month it expanded a “breaking news” trial, permitting designated media organisations to tag about one story a day.

Despite these tweaks, journalists can no longer rely on Facebook as a critical component of the news discovery ecosystem. As Facebook is leaving news, maybe it’s time for journalists to leave Facebook. While the platform was critical to build mass audience, it can’t be used to build direct relations with readers that engage and build trust. Yet, readers are the future of revenues.

The vagaries of the Facebook algorithm coupled with the company’s design uniformity means that news read on Facebook is just that: news read on Facebook. It’s sourced to the friend who shared it. If it’s trusted, it’s because the sharer is trusted.

This uproots the individual story from the grounding of the writer, the editor, the publisher who made it happen in the first place. Even before the January tweaks, this limited its value in journalism discovery.

The scale of Facebook – 2.2 billion global users last year – made it an unavoidable place to have your work discovered. Once, Facebook acted as though it cared. As recently as three years ago, editors would whisper with a touch of excitement about booming views thanks to Facebook referrals. Facebook looked like the gift that would keep on giving.

Publishers talked about the imminent death of their own home pages, with their internal editorial judgement replaced by the wisdom of crowds mediated through Facebook’s algorithm.

Looking back, we can see that Facebook’s enthusiasm for news was a market response to Twitter: take it head on, do what it did, only better. Embracing news blunted the threat from the newcomer. Once Twitter was constrained to about 300 million users, the threat could be ignored.

Then Facebook fell victim to its own success. First, in late 2015, Facebook found itself in the US left/right culture wars, targeted by conservatives for left-wing bias in Trending Topics. Then, fake news: the deliberate gaming of the platform in the 2016 US election through false stories to garner likes and shares for either political or commercial gain.

The impact on the Trump election remains unclear. Facebook seems slow to find out. Instead, the company spent 2017 trying to avoid the unavoidable – how do you curate what people read, without taking responsibility for what turns up? (Their tortured journey is detailed in this month’s Wired magazine.)

They trimmed news and trialed fact-checking mechanisms before settling on their January tweak, effectively stripping news out of the news feed.

But Zuckerberg’s “time well spent” was as much a reaction to increasing concerns that time on Facebook was anything but time spent well. In January, Wall Street Journal tech writer Christopher Mims summarised the concerns increasingly articulated by psychologists to former Facebook executives and investors saying “Facebook’s success is bad for society”.

This week, the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo took a different tack. He said his two month’s digital news sabbatical, spared him the worry of the most broken part of the digital new cycle – breaking news itself.

Facebook looks like it’s testing that proposition. Is our problem too much social media, or is it too much news?

Peter Fray

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