Today's New York Times treats its readers to two whole articles about Facebook's News Feed (capital letters because it's a brand name). One, by Ravi Somaiya, focuses in part on the 26-year-old engineer who runs the News Feed team; the other, by David Carr, examines Facebook's pitch to publishers: Let us host your content, and also, uh, serve ads against it.
This is a terrifying new development in the rapid rise of Facebook as the only essential website on the internet for publishers, and it's nice that the paper of record is turning its eye toward the company; outside of John Herrman's excellent "Content Wars" series on The Awl, there's far too little being written about the Facebook-driven present of digital publishing, by which I mean Content Provision.
(One reason for the general silence, Carr notes, is that publishers are genuinely terrified of pissing off Facebook:
It is a measure of Facebook's growing power in digital realms that when I called around about those rumors, no one wanted to talk. Well, let me revise that: Many wanted to talk, almost endlessly, about how terrible some of the possible changes would be for producers of original content, but not if I was going to indicate their place of employment. (Many had signed confidentiality agreements, so there's that as well.)
It's not that Facebook has a reputation for extracting vengeance, so far as I know; it's just that the company has become the No. 1 source of traffic for many digital publishers. Yes, search from Google still creates inbound interest, and Twitter can spark attention, especially among media types, but when it comes to sheer tonnage of eyeballs, nothing rivals Facebook.
A monstrous, future-defining corporation is also the number-one source of new traffic for publishers! This is by most standards a conflict of interest.)
Herrman has already written a smart analysis of the big news in Carr's column. But it's not all gloom and doom: Facebook is "boost[ing] quality content," as one anonymous publishing executive puts it.
Hmm? Facebook's "quality content" push is one of those weird "facts" that is widely acknowledged but rarely examined. Here's Somaiya:
When Facebook made changes to its algorithm last February to emphasize higher-quality content, several so-called viral sites that had thrived there, including Upworthy, Distractify and Elite Daily, saw large declines in their traffic.
Did they really? According to Quantcast, Upworthy has stayed in a 40 to 50 million uniques range all year, with a notable exception for July (we got crazy burned in July, too); Distractify climbed from a seven-million unique February to a 46-million unique May, before dropping down to 11 million in September; and Elite Daily almost doubled its February traffic (18 million to 33 million) in a record August, and will likely hit a new record October record. If the "quality content" push was meant to hurt Upworthy, Distractify and Elite Daily, it hasn't really succeeded.
Carr similarly allows the Facebook line on "high-quality content" to pass unchallenged:
The social network now has over 1.3 billion users — a fifth of the planet's population and has become a force in publishing because of its News Feed, which has been increasingly fine-tuned to feature high-quality content, the kind media companies produce.
As Herrman pointed out on the Awl a few weeks ago, the ten most-shared stories on Facebook in September (according to the analytics company NewsWhip) were seven quizzes ("Which Badass Woman Were You In Your Past Life?"), one death hoax, an article called "Scientists Find Drinking Wine Is Better Than Going to the Gym!" and...an Elite Daily post. [Grimace emoji] To be fair to Carr: Elite Daily is a media company, and "12 Reasons Why Your Brother Is The Most Important Man In Your Life" is the kind of content it produces.
"High quality," like many things, is in the eye of the beholder; in this case the beholder is an algorithm processing the distracted clicks and comments of millions of bored people in line and on the toilet. Carr paraphrases Facebook's chief product officer: "[T]he interests of Facebook and digital publishers are pretty much aligned."
[Image via AP]