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When Facebook fell out of love with news

The realisation that Facebook is a social network first and foremost and not a news-stand is starting to hit home with publishers as Mark Zuckerberg continues to fiddle with his News Feed algorithm to salvage - or grow - his creation.

The irony of BuzzFeed trying to take advantage of Facebook’s recent announcement to make sweeping changes to its News Feed algorithm was not lost on Wolfgang Blau, president at Condé Nast International. No sooner had Facebook reveal it will downgrade publisher content in its News Feed in favour of posts that “spark conversation and inspire meaningful interactions”, BuzzFeed tweeted “Plz meaningfully engage with our new Facebook ad campaign to download our news app”. The ad reads: “Facebook is taking news out of your News Feed, but we’ve got you covered. Download our award-winning app”. In his response Blau tweeted: “Trying to envision Buzzfeed without News Feed.”

 

The tweet cuts much deeper than merely a snub directed at Buzzfeed. It implies that too many publishers have become reliant on social platforms to drive content discovery. Later the same day, writing for medium.com, Blau remarks that publishers need to remember that they have no right to be on Facebook. The “sense of entitlement in some of the industry‘s initial reactions (to the announcement) is a waste of time”.

He also warns that there is no point in proclaiming publishers would no longer need Facebook because Facebook remains “the world‘s most powerful distributor of that most precious of resources called attention. No matter which business model you pursue as a publishing company outside of China - paywalls, membership schemes, conferences, education services, brand licensing or advertising - I would like to see how you think you could afford to not keep using Facebook as a pathway to potential users, clients or communities who aren’t aware of your offers yet”.

Yet, News Feed was never supposed to be a news stand. Blau says publishers should not forget that when Facebook launched News Feed in 2006 it was not meant for journalistic news at all. “Its clever use by publishers was just one of these historic accidents initially and later on encouraged by Facebook. And to be fair to Facebook, we as publishers all benefited tremendously from them, building international audiences and communities of a size hardly anyone could ever have dreamt of before News Feed existed.”

A souring relationship

There are those who are not taking to the changes kindly. In what could be described as a more cynical “translation” of the new Facebook news feed announcement, UK media commentator and blogger Adam Tinworth says that when Adam Mosseri, head of News Feed at Facebook wrote “we’ll be making updates to ranking so people have more opportunities to interact with the people they care about”, in the “de facto PR language of Silicon Valley” Mosseri actually tries to say: “We can’t make money unless you keep telling us things about yourself that we can sell to advertisers. Please stop talking about news.”

Mosseri’s words “we use signals like how many people react to, comment on or share posts to determine how high they appear in News Feed”, he, in fact, means to say: “To make sure we can monetise your relationships.”

As far as publishers are concerned, says Tinworth, the announcement that “space in News Feed is limited” and that Facebook will now “show more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation and less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses”, it simply means news publishers will be asked to pay for content distribution (in future).

When Mosseri writes: “With this update, we will also prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people,” he is actually saying: “We’re fed up with being scapegoated for the “fake news” problem, so we’re getting rid of news,” writes Tinworth in his blog.

Arne Wolter, chief digital officer at Gruner + Jahr says while they can surely acknowledge that Facebook needs to constantly adapt its algorithms, “with this announcement we need to rethink and ask ourselves if Facebook is a reliable and sustainable business partner for publishers in the future”. He says this is especially worrying in light of the fact that these changes are communicated with short notice “whereas at the same time Facebook claims to be more open and upfront towards their business partners”.

“It leaves us then with the unanswered question: ‘How seriously is Facebook taking partnerships?’” asks Wolter.

Matthew Garrahan, global media editor for the Financial Times, says this move by Facebook “will infuriate news organisations”, especially those “which are not deemed trustworthy or high-quality”. It is not clear, however, how Facebook will judge quality. One indicator mooted by Garrahan is subscriptions, suggesting that Facebook would gauge a news feed from a publication with higher subscriptions as more worthy to achieve a high news feed ranking than others.    

Some news more equal than others

Garrahan also suggests that Facebook will try to make the newsfeed a place for personal sharing and in-depth discussions and could move other content from pages and publishers to a separate space within the app. Quoting a “person familiar with the matter” he writes that this would mimic Snap, the owner of Snapchat, which announced it would split posts.

He quotes at least one unnamed publisher who said: “Zuckerberg has finally realised that not all news is equal.”

But it seems this is not as uncomplicated as Zuckerberg might think. Blau warns that no matter whatever might have motivated the creator of the social media phenomenon to order these dramatic changes, his power to shape it remains limited. “No institution, no company, no platform on this planet can have more than two billion active users and not be an integral part of the global news ecosystem.”

More questions

The fact that the News Feed policy changes raises more questions than answers is raised by Anne-Marie Tomchak, UK editor at Mashable. She says while Zuckerberg says he wants Facebook users to have “more meaningful interactions” - citing research - he does not provide any answers to the all important question: what exactly is a meaningful interaction? “Is it a ‘like’, a ‘share’, a ‘conversation’?”

Writing on her Facebook page she says these changes need to be viewed from a user perspective, from a Facebook perspective and from a publisher perspective.

For the user research shows people are not using the platform to share personal content to the same degree that they used to. Others are turning away from it altogether because of the clogged up newsfeed. “It’s no longer social. But will the changes revert people back to their old habits? Or is it already too late? And will it stop people from eventually abandoning the platform?”

From Facebook’s point of view, she says partnering with publishers must have seemed like a great idea at the time. Facebook said: “Yay! We can give people what they want and make money in the process, harnessing advertising around content and monetising it. But they may not have banked on the many negative side effects of effectively operating like a media company without taking responsibility for upholding standards. Notably the proliferation of fake news and all of the challenges that it presents. Not to mention users *not* actually taking to the news feed like a duck to water.”

Publishers and media companies want to reach and grow audiences and they viewed the Facebook platform as a vehicle to achieve this. In the process, says Tomchak, they were doing deals with Facebook “many of which were prescriptive based on a set number of hours to fill, rather than thinking about supply and demand. There’s a difference between an audience and traffic. This change is going to lay that bare. But publishers have been wise and they have not put all of their eggs in one basket. They are diversifying in how they reach audiences.”

Tomchak also warns that this change could impact Facebook’s success and profitability. “These changes could commercially impact Facebook as users spend less time on the platform but potentially more quality time there. It is a risk Facebook is willing to take in the interest of long term survival and points to a changing metric on the type and value of user participation.

The China conundrum

What else - apart from a negative reputation Facebook acquired since the Trump election and a declining user engagement  - could have motivated Zuckerberg to make this change?, asks Blau. The answer, he suggests, can be found in Facebook’s “China problem”.

He says news journalism is a strategic burden for Facebook, who is desperately in need of becoming a truly global player. As long as Facebook is not in China and at risk of being thrown out of Russia or Turkey, “there is zero strategic interest for Facebook to become a ‘publisher’.

“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. Why own publishing companies also or become a publisher yourself when you have the best publishers’ content and ‘brand-halo‘ for free on your own properties, even in a now downgraded newsfeed?”

 

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