Facebook isn’t the devil, but its offer to media outlets is still a risky one

by Mathew on March 25, 2015 · 4 comments

According to a recent report in the New York Times, Facebook is working with a number of media outlets — including the Times itself — on a deal that will see them publish news and other content directly on the social platform, instead of just linking to stories on their websites. Facebook’s interest in these kinds of deals has been mentioned a number of times in the past, including in a piece by the late NYT media writer David Carr, but this is the first time we’ve gotten any real details. Initial launch partners reportedly include the Times, BuzzFeed and National Geographic.

If you follow any journalists on Twitter, you might have heard the term “Faustian bargain” used more than once to describe this kind of arrangement when the New York Times story first appeared. Faust, of course, was a legendary German scholar — immortalized in a play by Goethe — who was unsatisfied with his career and wound up making a deal with the devil: Unlimited wealth and fame, in return for his soul. That might be overstating the downside of Facebook’s deal a tad, but it is definitely a double-edged sword — and one media companies shouldn’t take lightly.

For a media outlet, the benefits of publishing direct to Facebook are fairly obvious: By doing so, they get strategic access to Facebook’s more than 1 billion active users, some of whom spend hours every day on the social platform. That kind of audience reach is like the Holy Grail for publishers, most of whom are lucky if their readers — even the ones who pay for the content they consume — spend more than a few minutes on their site at a time. Any traditional publisher, even the New York Times, would jump at the chance to have Facebook’s engagement engine applied to its content.

Nytimes_hq

In addition to reach, it appears that Facebook is offering media outlets the ability to have their content appear more quickly as well, since loading external sites can take some time within the Facebook app and readers find this irritating, to the point where they often don’t click on those links again. In a sense, what Facebook is offering is a little like the “fast lane” that Internet providers like Comcast guarantee to providers such as Netflix — a way of smoothing the path so that their content reaches the audience more efficiently (whether this is fair or not is a separate question).

Facebook also has another powerful thing to offer, and that is its news-feed algorithm — and this is where the company’s appealing offer starts to look a lot more like a Faustian bargain. While Facebook could presumably use its news-feed ranking algorithm to recommend more stories and content from its partners (an aspect of the deal that other publishers are undoubtedly also thinking about), the details of whose content gets recommended and when would be totally under Facebook’s control.

The all-powerful Facebook algorithm

This is part of why Facebook as a news source is a concern not just for media outlets, but for individual users as well: the functioning of the Facebook algorithm — the way it chooses which things to show you and which to hide — is so arcane that many users aren’t even aware that it is occurring. And so the view they have of the world is being distorted in some way, but they don’t really have any idea how or why. That’s more than a little troubling, and the new arrangement Facebook is talking about would expand that problem even further.

The media industry has been down this particular road once before: Several years ago, so-called “social readers” were all the rage — applications from outlets like The Guardian and the Washington Post, which allowed readers to consume content without having to leave Facebook. Those applications quickly gained millions of users because Facebook promoted them, but then the social platform changed its mind (and its algorithm) and stopped doing so, and their readership was reduced to virtually zero almost overnight.

The loading screen of the Facebook application on a mobile phone is seen in this photo illustration taken in Lavigny

The unfortunate reality of dealing with Facebook is that, like Google, its algorithm is a black box. The only ones who know how it works — and ultimately control its outcome — are CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Cox, the executive in charge of the news-feed. They say they want high-quality content because that’s what their readers desire, and therefore it increases “engagement.” But who decides what content matches that description, and who it is going to be shown to, and when? Facebook.

It’s not just about control either — it’s also about who ultimately benefits most from the kind of arrangement Facebook is proposing. If media outlets can get some data from the social platform about their readers and their demographic breakdown, interests, etc. then it might arguably be worth it, but then there’s the long-term cost: If consumers find more of their news appearing on Facebook without having to click to find it somewhere else, who will they start to see as the source of news? Facebook.

In some ways, dealing with Facebook is actually worse than Faust’s deal: The German scholar chose to cut a deal with Satan primarily because he was vain, but media companies are forced to work with Facebook whether they want to or not, because the platform plays such a huge role in how millions of people come into contact with the news. With that kind of clout, news entities can’t afford to not be on the network, but the more content they put there, the more they risk losing even more control over their business — and the only one in a position to dictate the terms of such a deal is Facebook.

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