A News Feed Without News

by Peter Rojas

The day nearly every digital media company has been fearing has finally come: Facebook is going to change the way News Feed works. In a post last week Mark Zuckerberg announced that over the coming months Facebook will begin showing users less "public content from businesses, brands, and media," and instead prioritize updates and content shared by friends and family. For publishers who have become addicted to the free traffic which has flowed from Facebook users clicking and sharing articles which have populated their News Feeds, this is bad news (especially given that the amount of traffic Facebook sends publishers has already been dropping steadily since last year). For those who have built their entire readership acquisition strategy around social distribution through Facebook, it may well prove fatal.

For media companies, relying on Facebook for traffic was seductive. While the good times rolled, it was easy to overlook that despite being called "News Feed", anyone getting their news via Facebook is a side effect of the platform, not its intent. News publishers, who often put a considerable amount of effort into optimizing their content and websites to maximize Facebook shares, became accustomed to thinking of that traffic as "theirs." They mistakenly believed that the distribution of their articles and videos via News Feed was a natural extension of Facebook's core functionality -- or even the point of the platform in the first place. But Facebook's purpose is not to deliver the news, or even more broadly, "information." At the end of the day, Facebook doesn't care whether anyone becomes better informed by using Facebook. What ultimately matters to Facebook is that you continue to use it, which is why News Feed has been a machine designed to show you more and more of whatever it is that you will look at, click on, and share.

Up until this announcement it largely didn't matter whether that content was your friend's cat photos, a story about Yemen in the New York Times, or a recipe from AllRecipes. I can't tell whether Mark Zuckerberg is being disingenuous when he wrote in this past Thursday's announcement about the changes that he expects, "the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down," but that also the time spent "will be more valuable" and that in the long term such changes will be "good for our community and our business." You can bet that Facebook has already done plenty of A/B testing of these changes. It's entirely possible that they've determined that time spent will actually go up. Or that even if the amount of time the average person spends using Facebook goes down, it won't negatively impact revenue because engagement with ads improved and/or those brands and publishers which can afford it will pay for distribution they previously enjoyed for free.

Zuckerberg also said in his announcement that what content from businesses, brands, and media users see, "should encourage meaningful interactions between people." Sounds great, right? What worries me is that this may have the unintended consequence of making the fake news problem even worse. Strong engagement is why deliberately fabricated articles have done so well on Facebook in the first place. If you don't care much about being accurate -- or the damage you might do by misleading people -- it's all too easy to create content which will strike just the right kind of emotional nerve to drive clicks and shares. Today's polarized climate has made it especially easy for anything which inflames political passions to get shared, regardless of how true it may be. All that clicking and sharing is just the kind of big fat engagement signal the NewsFeed algorithms have looked for when calculating what to show users. Making things worse, these false stories didn't just have the effect of crowding out legitimate, but less engaging, content from your News Feed -- a situation which will likely be exacerbated by these changes. They also had a knock-on effect of diminishing the authority of articles which did surface in your News Feed from more established publications. How? Putting every piece of content, one after the other, in a single undifferentiated, uniformly-designed feed effectively flattens any distinctions between. You can't put a spurious site like Infowars next to a reputable publication like the New York Times in someone's News Feed and not expect the authority of the latter to rub off on the former. (This is a problem Google has as well with respect to ranking of search results.)

I don't know exactly how the new News Feed will handle issues like this. It's reasonable to assume that once publishers have some sense of what signals around engagement the algorithms are looking for, they will optimize their content for the new algorithms. Misleading content may actually be more likely to surface in users' feeds than informative content from legitimate sources as a result. It is also worth noting that most publishers won't be able to afford to pay to promote their content in order to drive click-thru. The cost of doing so will usually exceed their ability to monetize via advertising, potentially giving an advantage to anyone (including a state-sponsored actor with malicious intent) who has the resources to pay to promote misleading content into users' News Feeds but has no need to generate revenue from that traffic.

The solution to all this could be to have Facebook "do the right thing" and just show us dispassionate, authoritative, high-quality news articles anyway, right? Well, that kind of news may be better for us, but would likely lead to people using Facebook less and that would be bad for business. We don't necessarily want to admit it, but news, or at least the kind of news that we want people to read so they'll be better citizens, isn't necessarily what they want to look at online. There's nothing stopping anyone from just going directly to places like The Washington Post or Economist or New York Times to get their news (or better yet, subscribing to them). However, most people are casual consumers of news in whatever form is most convenient, whether it's via whatever they see in their Facebook feed, headlines at the top of the hour on the local FM station, or CNN when they're flipping channels. When they do actively seek out news by going directly to a source it is often to read or watch about a specific topic or area of interest, like sports, celebrity gossip, or tech (something I tapped into with Gizmodo and Engadget - during my time at each site the majority of traffic came from direct visits).

Even if social platforms like Facebook and Twitter disappeared, would any of that change? Before the rise of social media, most internet users who consumed news online did so via big portals like Yahoo and AOL (which is why getting on those homepages was a key strategy for digital media business at the time). Plus, it's not like the era immediately preceding the web was exactly a golden era of journalism producing a well-informed citizenry, either. Daily newspaper subscription rates began falling decades before the advent of the web, supplanted mainly by broadcast and then cable news. Yes, we had fewer debates over what was true and what was false, but this was because we had a media ecosystem which was largely closed to bad actors. And over time, consolidation via mergers and acquisitions meant that a relatively small number of gigantic media companies determined most of what we consumed. As damaging as Facebook has been for our political discourse, the sad reality is that most people don't go out of their way to become better informed by seeking out quality journalism about the state of national and international affairs. News Feed has been good at giving us what we want, not what we need.

For a while everything seemed great. Users who weren't naturally inclined to seek out news ended up consuming it because it showed up in their feeds. All that free traffic from Facebook masked two problems for publishers. First, a big platform which doesn't care much whether you live or die essentially controls access to your readers. Second, readers that only visited you because they clicked on a link in their News Feed probably don't have a strong connection to your brand -- or possibly even much awareness of which sites they were reading what articles. Getting them to go out of their way to find you when those links stop showing up is going to be difficult.

Could you address both of those problems by having a group of publishers come together to create a new platform for distributing their articles and videos via a News Feed-like newsreader app, perhaps one including options for monetization via ads, subscriptions, and micropayments? Yes, but simply offering an app for people to read the news and calling it a day won't be enough, especially if you want to get more people reading high quality, informative journalism and not celeb-driven clickbait. Aggregating a large audience is key, remember that all these websites flocked to share their content on Facebook in the first place because of its potential to deliver massive amounts of free traffic. Anything which doesn't move the needle in terms of audience (and hence revenue) is not going to be worth the effort. I don't pretend to have the answer here, but there would have to be something distinctive and compelling about the way news is consumed and shared on a platform like this if there's going to be any hope of attracting audiences at the scale for which publishers are looking.

That said -- and without minimizing the challenges inherent in building sustainable news businesses -- I am hopeful that in the long-run breaking publishers' addiction to Facebook traffic will free them from having to create so much pageview-driven clickbait (something even prestigious publishers engage in), allowing them instead to focus more on audiences who seek out journalism and pursue subscriptions and other non-advertising based sources of revenue. It's why I'm definitely in favor of more experimentation with how people discover and consume news; publishers have to become less reliant on big platforms like Facebook (and Google, for that matter) for distribution if they are going to survive and. For my part, I've opted out of Facebook (I quit almost eight years ago and never looked back), use an RSS reader to get most of my news (which lets me decide what sources of news I read), and am a paid subscriber to publications I value. These may be small steps, but they feel like the least I can do to help foster a healthier ecosystem around news.