Last month, Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims tweeted something interesting:
I think if regulators had a better understanding of Facebook’s power over media they’d regulate it as a monopoly in that sphere.
— Christopher Mims (@mims) October 27, 2014
On its surface, the thought seems laughable. Would the Federal Trade Commission really break up Facebook? Isn’t separating the company into a constellation of single-use apps—Messenger, Paper, Rooms, etc.—what Facebook is doing on its own right now?
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that Mims’ comment was right on the nose. Facebook is the single most powerful entity in the world of online media. In many important ways, it has the ability to effectively execute monopoly power over the distribution mechanism between content producers and content consumers. It’s a power that Facebook could easily leverage in ways heretofore unimaginable.
Mims was tweeting in the context of an article by New York Times media scribe David Carr, which floated the idea of Facebook allowing online content creators to publish their news stories, viral videos, and clickbait quizzes to Facebook’s platform. The content would load fast and be perfectly optimized for mobile devices, which are already the primary way people around the world consume online web content; but, publishers would have to give Facebook a cut of their ad revenues for the privilege.
This idea, which Facebook insisted to the Daily Dot (among other outlets) isn’t necessarily going to happen, rightly scared the pants off of everyone in online media—and not just because a news outlet hosting their content on Facebook would likely lose a fair amount of control over what that content would look and feel like.
To understand why Facebook’s theoretical offer of hosting others’ content was such a big deal, allow me to posit a hypothetical demonstrating the extent of Facebook’s power over online media: If Facebook wanted to start its own online news outlet, it could make that outlet the single most popular news source in the world in under 24 hours.
Note that Facebook is enormous. There are roughly the same number of Facebook users as there are people in China. The eyeballs of all of those users, and Facebook’s ability to point those eyeballs in whichever direction it desires is the company’s greatest resource.
When it comes to news, Facebook is the single biggest driver of traffic on the Web. The Daily Dot gets well over half of its daily traffic directly from Facebook.
A study conducted by social media marketing firm Fractl of the one million most-shared articles from the first six months of 2014 found that 81 percent of those shares came from Facebook. No other social network came close to approaching Facebook’s ability to match bored people with content designed to temporarily alleviate that boredom.
As a result, content creators on the Internet have taken to optimizing content so that it can “go viral” on Facebook. Why is the Weather Channel expanding outside of its core online business of telling people whether it’s going to rain or not? Why is Playboy now pumping out feminist listicles? Why does everything you read online seem to be formatted in more or less the same way?
The answer to all of these questions is simple: Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.
In 2014, structuring content in a way that works best for Facebook is probably the single most surefire way to ensure that it gets the highest possible number of clicks. So when an unnamed Facebook executive told David Carr about the company’s plan to host third-party content on its platform, the idea seemed like the perfect combination of stick and carrot. In exchange for a portion of a site’s advertising dollars, Facebook could have the ability to boost that content so it appeared more frequently in its users News Feeds. If a site chose not to take Facebook up on the offer, well, just think about all of the pageviews they’d be missing out on.
However, taking this argument to its logical extreme, Facebook could possibly do far better by leveraging its position of power to create the single most efficient news agency the world has ever seen.
Here’s how it could work: Facebook hires a bunch of writers and editors dedicated to churning out viral content. There’s very little original reporting involved; instead, stories are aggregated from other news outlets. Facebook’s trending topics feature already sifts through the site’s massive torrent of data to identify narratives that have recently experienced a significant jump as topics of conversation. Presently, after Facebook identifies that topic is getting hot, it boosts stories on that subject so they’re seen by more people. But, if Facebook were to use that information to guide the editorial decisions of its own news agency, the company could easily be out in front on nearly every trend going viral on its network.
Generating leads isn’t even the biggest advantage a Facebook news bureau would have over its rivals.
For the average brand page, each update is only seen by, on average, under 10 percent of the people who signed up to receive updates by liking the page. Stories that seems resonate with readers—who register their approval by clicking on, liking, or sharing the content—are seen by more people. But there’s nothing set in stone about this number. If Facebook wanted to, the site could make it so every story put out by a given news outlet is seen by 50 or 100 percent of people who Liked that outlet’s Facebook page. It could even show the stories to users who never signed up to receive articles from a given news outlet. If Facebook had the desire (and monetary incentive) to do so, it could put whatever stories on the screens of 1.3 billion active users and instantly achieve an enormous level of dominance.
The company wouldn’t have to build this distribution mechanism becuase it already exists. All Facebook would have to do is make sure its own content rises to the top of everyone’s feed, something that could be done immediatley upon launch, and then a news outlet that didn’t exist the previous day would suddently have its content put in front of more viewers than any other on the planet. It could go from zero to world dominence at the snap of a finger.
Now, you’re probably asking, “What if nobody trusts Facebook as a news source and people make a conscious effort to avoid its stories?”
The answer: It doesn’t matter if anyone trusts the content created by Facebook’s theoretical news agency, they’re probably going to click on it anyway.
A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Journalism Project asked respondents to rate three dozen different news sources based on trust. While the study found shape ideological divides between the news outlets trusted by liberals and conservatives, there was one news source that no one trusted regardless of where they fell on the political spectrum: Buzzfeed.
From staunch liberals to hardline conservatives, more people of every political persuasion distrusted Buzzfeed than trusted it as a source of news.
It isn’t really fair to use this study as an excuse to pile on Buzzfeed. The site has only been in the business of doing news for a few years and the overwhelming majority of respondents had either never heard of Buzzfeed or didn’t have enough information to render a opinion.
Also, Buzzfeed is taking names when it comes to online traffic. The aforementioned Fractl social media study noted that Buzzfeed had approximately 400 million social shares of its articles during the first half of 2014. The second place finisher, the Huffington Post, had about 250 million. The New York Times and CNN barely cracked 100 million.
Buzzfeed’s ability to dominate the dissemination of its articles over social media with only approximately two percent of population both knowing what Buzzfeed it and viewing it as a trusted news source is evidence that trust doesn’t matter anymore when it comes to online media—especially when its disseminated through Facebook.
Pew researcher Kenny Olmstead noted that Facebook has the tendency to make people forget what outlet produced a specific piece of information, like the New York Times, and instead substitute the platform they used to discover the content in question—Facebook,
“People’s inability to recall precisely where they read something isn’t unique to Facebook; social scientists have been saying this for years,” Olmstead told the Daily Dot earlier this year. “But Facebook is just amplifying that because there’s so much more information on the news feed than people have traditionally had access to before.”
As long as content is built to be shared, if someone first encounters that content through Facebook, they’re probably already nebulously attributing it to the social network anyway.
While Facebook is in a position to produce news content in-house and distribute it more efficiently than any other system in human history, there’s no guarantee that the business wouldn’t generate enough revenue to even make the entire endeavor worthwhile.
Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication, insisted that Facebook is already has most of things that media outlets traditionally create news bureaus in order to obtain.
“When you go back and look at news content, it was always really a way to draw readers to newspapers to justify selling the advertising. I don’t think Facebook would need to do that because they already have the users,” Gutterman explained. “Their main goal is to draw in advertisers and use the data they collect to better serve those advertisers. I’m not sure the Facebook news service would really draw more users to the site because everybody’s on there already.”
In addition, it may be far cheaper for Facebook to simply monetize content other entities produce than to create its own—even if it would get a larger share of the advertising dollars from each piece of content.
“News is expensive to produce and it usually loses money for media companies. You look at the nightly news major TV networks, while it draws viewers, it doesn’t generate the revenues that shareholders really like,” Gutterman continued. “Most news operations tend to be vanity or public service elements to these big, national media companies. It would be an expensive proposition to build the infrastructure for creating a newsroom with reporters, editors, and graphic artists.”
Even so, a online platform turning into a news operation wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 2012, Tumblr launched Storyboard, an in-house news blog tasked with reporting on Tumblr’s vibrant and fast-moving community. Storyboard garnered a significant amount of respect in the journalism world—even getting nominated for a prestigious James Beard award for food writing—however, Tumblr didn’t leverage its platform and show Storyboard’s posts to all of its users on a regular basis and the effort was shuttered the following year.
Omnibus sites like Yahoo and AOL have created their own news agencies, which often leverage the high volumes of traffic coming to their respective homepages as ways to promote their editorial operations. (Full disclosure: I was previously part of AOL’s editorial operation as an editor at the Huffington Post.)
None of this is to say that Facebook is ever going to do anything like delving into the original content business or even that such a move would make financial sense for the company.
Facebook’s efforts to dip its toe into journalism up to this point have been limited to FB Newswire, a resource for journalists that collects newsworthy posts from other journalists in a central location. In conjunction with viral content verification service Storyful, Facebook launched a tech-focused version of Newswire on Tuesday.
Neither of these efforts appear to be directly focused on getting more pageviews for the Facebook, rather the intention seems to be helping journalists do their job. Sure, these efforts are primarily about pointing out interesting things happening on Facebook, not published outside of it, but they’re still focused on pointing them out to others so that they can write about it.
In many ways, Facebook’s distribution power borders on the monopolistic and that type of centralized control isn’t good for content creators nor is it good for consumers.
But the nice thing about the Internet is that there’s nothing inherent about Facebook’s power. It doesn’t own a critical mass of pipelines or oil refiners; it doesn’t control all of the phone lines in America. Facebook is powerful because Facebook is popular. If another company dreams up a better method for people to connect with each other online that draws users away from Facebook, the social network’s influence will be diminished. If news outlets devise their own ways for getting the stuff they produce to the screens of computers and smartphones, even better.
Until that happens, the specter of Facebook jumping into their business and doing it in a far more effective why than they could ever imagine should be sitting there in the back of media executives’ minds. “It would take a lot of time and money to get a news operation the ground,” mused Gutterman. “But if anyone has time and money to spare, it’s Facebook.”
Photo by Diego Torres Silvestre/flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed