Facebook’s announcement yesterday that the platform will limit the posts in News Feeds from other Facebook pages and instead prioritize posts from users’ families and friends came as a nasty shock to the media industry.
The announcement reads:
“Facebook was built on the idea of connecting people with their friends and family. That is still the driving principle of News Feed today. Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook.”
So what does this mean? Essentially, Facebook has decided it is more interested in showing users photos and updates from their Facebook friends than posts from other pages, and as a result, the reach and referral traffic of posts from the Facebook pages of businesses and media companies will decline.
This is of course cause for concern for media companies that have come to rely on platforms like Facebook and Twitter for substantial portions of their web traffic. As Parsley reports, Facebook accounts for 41.4% of referral traffic to news sites. And according to the Reuters Institute 2016 Digital News Report, 51% of those surveyed reported using social media as a source of news each week, with 28% of 18-24 year-olds citing it as their main source of news.
But it’s important to note that not all posts from businesses and media organizations will be less likely to show up in news feeds. As the announcement explains, news posts shared by your friends will still show up at the top of your feed.
“The specific impact on your Page’s distribution and other metrics may vary depending on the composition of your audience. For example, if a lot of your referral traffic is the result of people sharing your content and their friends liking and commenting on it, there will be less of an impact than if the majority of your traffic comes directly through Page posts.”
To take Forbes as an example, the change in Facebook’s algorithm isn’t going to have a very drastic impact on our traffic because the majority of our Facebook traffic comes from other people posting and sharing and our stories. The amount of traffic we get via posts from our own Facebook page is much smaller in comparison.
Of course, any loss in traffic is going to hurt media companies whose only lifeline in the current digital advertising landscape is scale. And many publishers and businesses are likely going to try to fight back against this decline in eyeballs and reach by paying Facebook big bucks to promote their sponsored content (smart strategy on Facebook’s part—make media companies reliant on your platform by surfacing their content for free, and then snatch that away and make them pay for that same traffic).
But the other implications of this algorithm change are more interesting to parse.
In many ways, it had started to look like Facebook was toeing the line to becoming a publisher in its own right—what with the Facebook trending news controversy and its promotion of live video and instant articles. But Facebook has now come out into the open and announced that it has no interest in entering the news business. As its announcement lays out, Facebook has certain “values” that the News Feed is built on. Namely, that the News Feed be “subjective, personal, and unique.”
In other words, Facebook is afraid of becoming an impersonal RSS feed of news. It feels threatened by platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, which have successfully managed to get users to share more and more of their own videos and photos. Facebook’s promotion of live video shows that it is attempting to challenge Snapchat for a share of the live video sharing market.
And its new algorithm change which prioritizes posts from individual users over businesses and media companies is another attempt to get people to share. And even if most people aren’t sharing, it’s going to look like they are because the posts from those who are will surface to the top of their friends’ News Feeds.
In its press announcement, the first “value” that Facebook claims its News Feed is based off of is that friends and family come first. The second is that the feed should be informative—though what one person finds informative might be different from what another person does. And the third is that the News Feed should entertain.
But what do those “values” really mean?
What’s clear from this change and the resulting effect on media companies is that 1) Facebook does not value news and information from reputable sources any more highly than it does content that users are sharing (and the emphasis on shareable content is likely going to result in a higher prevalence of “fluff” and click-bait than anything else) and 2) Facebook does not value its relationship to news publishers and it does not see itself as responsible for their financial well-being. For Facebook, content is content, and whatever keeps users’ eyeballs on its site for longer is what Facebook will deem “important.”
But perhaps this change is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps it will make media companies wake up to the fact that Facebook and other social platforms are not going to be the saving grace of the media industry.
Facebook Engineering Director Lars Backstrom said in a press note that the change to its News Feed comes because “people are still worried about missing important updates from the friends they care about.” And maybe updates and photos from friends and family should be what Facebooks is all about.
With instant articles and live video, Facebook has proven that it will do what it can to keep users from leaving its platform to visit other sites (this way, Facebook can keep the advertising revenue that would otherwise go to those sites), and with each algorithm change, Facebook encourages media companies and businesses to “pay to play” by decreasing their pages’ organic reach.
Now it’s clear that Facebook isn’t interested in becoming a major news source—and that’s a good thing, because in exchange for scale, Facebook has kept publishers at its beck and call, influencing everything from the type of content they create (i.e. first encouraging clickbait-y content and then burying it) to the distribution method (paying certain publishers to produce live video).
But while Facebook’s days of focusing on the news industry might be over, its success in capturing such a large share of the digital news market demonstrates that the company understands something about the way that people access and consume news that individual publishers and brands are still struggling to learn.
As more and more people access news via smartphones (53% of those surveyed for the Reuters 2016 Digital News Report use their smartphone for news—and that number is only growing), there is a turn away from home pages and apps. Smartphone users are more likely to access news via a social platform than through a news publisher’s website or app.
What Facebook offers as a news source is simplicity: open this app and access a variety of information from all sorts of news sources without having to navigate through different apps or individual home pages. Clearly, there is a desire for a one-stop shop for access to information.
But as Facebook’s announcement demonstrates, the social platform doesn’t want to be the solution to this need. So then what will be? Maybe the answer is a new social network designed primarily for accessing, sharing and commenting on news. Or perhaps it is not so much a social network as a single news store or aggregate news subscription service in the same vein as Spotify or Netflix. Maybe the answer looks more like Medium.
What’s clear for now, though, is that Facebook found a way to use content to attract large audiences and generate billions of dollars of ad revenue. And now that Facebook is unclenching its grip on the news industry, the question is when media companies will figure out how to do the same.