I still haven’t gotten around to writing anything more substantive about the controversy over Facebook’s “Trending Topics.” But this Storify lays out my main arguments.
If Facebook wanted to call its trending news section “Editors’ Picks” or some such thing, then it wouldn’t matter if the stories reflected liberal leanings, conservative leanings, or whatever. In fact, it is simply called “Trending.” And it’s not illogical for us to believe that it’s an accurate reflection of news that Facebook users are sharing.
Now the tech site Gizmodo is reporting that Facebook editors have actually manipulated the trending-news list to suppress stories that are favorable to conservatives or critical of Facebook. Michael Nunez reports that a source told him “that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.”
Let’s be clear about what was going on. This wasn’t the New York Times putting together a front page that reflects the liberal biases of its editors. This was much more like the phone company deciding to blocks calls from people and organizations if it doesn’t like their views.
It’s bad enough that we don’t understand the algorithms that go into deciding what we see in the news feed. Trending news is supposed to be transparent and on the level. I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that it isn’t, but I’m horrified nevertheless.
Gizmodo reports that no one from Facebook would comment on its story. So we don’t know whether the company admits this took place in the past or, if it is, if it’s still going on.
Update: Facebook has issued a statement in which it says that it’s taking the Gizmodo allegations “very seriously.”
Facebook is sucking the life out of the Internet because, for many of its users, it has become the Internet. That has serious implications for anyone seeking to publish online while keeping some distance from Mark Zuckerberg’s social-networking behemoth. Worse, Facebook’s utter dominance makes it increasingly difficult for independent journalism to thrive—or even to get noticed.
Consider some numbers. According to the Economist, Facebook has 1.6 billion users, more than 60 percent of whom are logged on for at least 20 minutes each day. By contrast, the Washington Post, whose web traffic now exceeds that of any other American newspaper, received just 73 million unique visits during the entire month of March. And people who drop in on news sites spend an average of one to three minutes per visit.
Now consider a few recent developments in the world of online news, rounded up by media analyst Ken Doctor for the Nieman Journalism Lab. BuzzFeed, the recent subject of a gushing Fast Company article on how its chief executive, Jonah Peretti, was “Building A 100-Year Media Company,” has stumbled some 90 years short of its mark, falling well below its revenue targets. Layoffs and budget cuts have hit digital media properties such as Salon, the Huffington Post, Mashable, and Gawker. Yahoo could be headed for the glue factory.
There are several possible explanations for the problems these media organizations are experiencing. But surely a significant challenge is that their would-be readers are spending most of their time on Facebook.
I realize I am oversimplifying, and that most news organizations already publish on Facebook as well as on their own websites. The Washington Post, for instance, shares all of its journalism as Facebook Instant Articles, which load on mobile devices—as the name suggests—instantly. But though Instant Articles (and Apple News, a much smaller competitor) offer certain advantages, including the ability to evade ad-blockers, the revenue potential can’t compare with drawing an audience to your own website, especially if you can get them to pay up.
Even though the Post is trying to build its digital subscription base, it doesn’t dare eschew Facebook, says Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief information officer. “To get the exposure we need of our brand and our great storytelling ability, we need to go where the users are,” Prakash told me recently. “For us to not piggyback on that platform, especially with our national and international aspirations, I think would not be the right strategy.”
A news organization like the Post, owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, a peer of Zuckerberg’s, is one thing. After all, Bezos has already made the Post’s national digital edition part of Amazon Prime, and if he doesn’t like the deal he’s getting from Facebook there are presumably other steps he can take as well.
But what about a regional newspaper like the Boston Globe? I “like” the Globe’s Facebook page, but its journalism shows up in my newsfeed haphazardly at best. (Fortunately for the Globe, I’m already a paying subscriber.) The same is true with other news sources that I like. Facebook may be essential for media organizations. But the algorithm that determines what you actually see in your newsfeed is one of life’s great mysteries, determined (supposedly) by your behavior, but not in any transparent way you can control. The challenge is as great or greater for small local news sites whose proprietors built their business models around the idea that their readers would visit them on the web, and who must now depend on Facebook for much of their audience.
“Something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves,” said Emily Bell, director of the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, in a recent address. The title of her talk as republished in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Facebook is eating the world.”
“Social media and platform companies”—but mainly Facebook— “took over what publishers couldn’t have built even if they wanted to,” Bell added. “Now the news is filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable.”
The first half of the digital news revolution that began in the mid-1990s was defined by disaggregation—the break-up of the traditional newspaper bundle into a plethora of specialty sites and blogs devoted to interests such as local news, sports, and celebrity gossip.
The second half has been defined by re-aggregation at the hands of Facebook. And that trend is only accelerating. Mark Zuckerberg is not just the unimaginably wealthy founder and chief executive of the world’s largest social network. He also exercises enormous control, whether he ever wanted to or not, over how we receive the information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. That is an unsettling reality, to say the least.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’ve finally decided to implement it. I am taking a tactical step back from requiring real names in the comments section. I will continue to screen every comment before it’s posted, which I’ve come to realize is of much greater value than real names.
Since I first started requiring real names a few years ago, the online conversation has changed quite a bit. Comments at Media Nation and many other websites have dropped precipitously. At the same time, I post links to everything I write on Facebook, which often leads to in-depth, high-quality interactions. As you probably know, Facebook does require real names, and though not everyone goes along, most do. Here is my Facebook profile. We don’t need to be “friends,” since I post blog content to my public feed. In my opinion, the shift to Facebook is far more important than whether I require real names here.
The other reason I’m moving away from real names here is that several of my most regular commenters log in via WordPress under their screen names, forcing me to go in and change it to their real names. It’s a pain in the neck. Then, too, there are the excellent comments from people I don’t know who haven’t used their real names. I’ll often email them and ask them to resubmit under their real names. If I don’t hear from them, their comment goes unpublished.
As with everything in digital media, this is experimental. I may change my mind again or go in a completely different direction. Thank you for reading. If you want to comment here, be my guest, but I strongly recommend looking me up on Facebook.
Twitter, long a laggard behind Facebook, may be reaching a crisis point. Despite the return of co-founder Jack Dorsey, the stock price is sliding, its user base is stagnant and journalists — many of whom have long been enamored of Twitter because of its flexibility — are beginning to realize that far more of their audience is on Facebook.
Recently Umair Haque wrote a post for Medium headlined “Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It)” in which he argued that the platform has become the leading outlet for a certain type of nasty incivility — a place where “little violences that permeate the social web” get their more extravagant airing.
The post degenerates into overwrought handwringing. But before Haque gets to the part where he starts critiquing the meaning of life, he raises some important questions about Twitter. Why is Facebook (usually) a more civil place that fosters better conversations than Twitter?
Some of the answers seem obvious. On Facebook, you’re not bound by the 140-character restriction, which makes it more congenial for a conversation to develop. Facebook also makes it easier (though not as easy as it should) to define your community, whereas Twitter assumes you want everything to be open to everyone. Yes, you can fiddle with the settings, but it makes the service feel less useful.
A couple of years ago, I vastly preferred Twitter to Facebook. Now I find Facebook to be much more satisfying. I’m not sure whether Twitter has changed or if, instead, what I’m looking for in a social platform has evolved. Maybe it’s just that the novelty of Twitter has worn off.
Twitter recently unveiled curated stories called Moments, which might help in attracting those who were put off by the sheer labor you have to put into assembling a worthwhile list of feeds. If users started thinking about it differently — say, as more of a broadcast medium, a more flexible form of RSS, rather than as a place to have a conversation — that might help, too.
Or Twitter might curl up and die. Technologies come and go. There is no guarantee that Twitter will be one of the survivors, or that it should be.
The trouble with apps. Like many newspapers, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post have bet the farm on online distribution. Each has tablet apps (the Post has two!) that create a reading experience somewhat similar to the print newspaper. As a regular reader of both papers, I want to point out a bug in each. (Caveat: I could be doing something wrong.)
First, the Globe app, which is based upon a replica of the print edition, has a feature that supposedly lets you share an article on Twitter or Facebook. But the link it produces does not take you to the article. Instead, it takes you to the App Store, where you are invited to download the Globe’s iPad app. Which, of course, you already have.
The app, designed by miLibris, has improved greatly since a buggy version was released some months back. But this particular bug has prevailed. Time to fix it, eh?
My issue with The Washington Post involves its “classic” app, which is older than the sexy new magazine-like app that’s included with Amazon Prime — but which is also more comprehensive. (An overview of the Post’s various digital products can be found here.) It’s simple: the audio in videos does not play on my iPad, even though they are preceded by video ads that work just fine. The same videos also work fine when I try them on the newer app.
I would love to know whether the Globe and the Post are going to fix the bugs I’ve described — or if, as is always possible, I’m doing something boneheaded to create problems that don’t actually exist.
On the surface, it all seems straightforward enough. In one corner are executives at struggling news organizations who want to be sure that visitors to their websites actually see the ads. Thus did the Washington Post recently experiment with blocking the ad-blockers, a development first reported by BuzzFeed.
“Many people already receive our journalism for free online, with digital advertising paying only a portion of the cost,” a Post spokesperson was quoted as saying. “Without income via subscriptions or advertising, we are unable to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us.”
In the other corner are users who are sick and tired of popups, pop-unders, scroll-across-the-screeners and other obstrusive ads that invade your privacy by tracking your interests and that, in some cases, carry spyware or malware.
“What is unlikely to fly as a long-term strategy is begging readers to load all of the 50 or so trackers and ad-loaders and popups and banners, each of which might make a publisher three cents per thousand clicks, if they are lucky,” writes Mathew Ingram at Fortune. “That business is in a death spiral, and yelling about ad blockers isn’t going to change that.”
In fact, the ad-blocking controversy is anything but a simple morality play. Nor is it a coincidence that the issue has reached a frenzied peak thanks to Apple’s decision to include ad-blocking in its iOS 9 software for iPhones and iPads. Because the real stakes are being fought not on the Internet but in the boardrooms of the giant tech companies that want to control your online experience.
Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge, explained it last week. Essentially, it comes down to this: publishers that rely on web advertising are helping to drive revenue to Apple’s archenemy, Google, which controls much of the infrastructure for online ads. Block those ads and those publishers are more likely to run into the warm embrace of Apple, whose new Apple News platform provides a nice, safe, closed environment with ads that can’t be blocked. And Apple gets a 30 percent cut.
Facebook offers a similar service, the still-aborning Instant Articles, which allows publishers to post their content directly inside Facebook’s all-powerful newsfeed. As with Apple News, Facebook takes a cut of the action from the unblockable ads that will be displayed. It’s such an attractive proposition that the same Washington Post that’s trying to block the ad-blockers announced Tuesday that it will also publish 100 percent of its content to Facebook. Patel writes:
So it’s Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook, all with their own revenue platforms. Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today.
And the collateral damage of that war — of Apple going after Google’s revenue platform — is going to include the web, and in particular any small publisher on the web that can’t invest in proprietary platform distribution, native advertising, and the type of media wining-and-dining it takes to secure favorable distribution deals on proprietary platforms. It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.
As a matter of principle, I refuse to use ad-blocking software — but I turned on AdBlock while researching this article just to see what would happen. As anyone could have told me, sites loaded more quickly and with fewer distractions. ESPN.com, which is so bogged down with ad-related bloatware that it’s become virtually unreadable, was zippier than I’ve ever seen it. A small hyperlocal site that I often visit suddenly appeared ad-free, simply because the site relies on an external ad-server business that AdBlock intercepted.
Interestingly enough, Marco Arment, the creator of the best-selling ad-blocking program Peace, pulled the software from Apple’s App Store almost as soon as it was released last week. “Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have,” he wrote on his blog. “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”
By acting as he did, Arment may have pointed the way to a possible solution. Because the problems ad-blockers are designed to solve are real, and they run a lot deeper than mere inconvenience. As Dan Gillmor recently wrote in Slate, “The advertising and tracking industries, abetted by telecommunications carriers, are investing in all kinds of technologies aimed at thwarting users’ wishes to retain some control over their online activities.”
So why not come up with a different kind of blocker — a piece of software that informs you when you’re about to access a website that fails to follow some agreed-upon list of best practices regarding privacy and user experience?
Such an arrangement may be the best way to preserve independent media on the open web. Users would be able to protect themselves from abusive adware without freeloading. And web publishers who see their traffic drop might decide it’s time to change their ways.
Remember when the iPad was going to save the news business? How did that work out? But if the redemptive qualities of tablets turned out to be overblown, they are nevertheless a compelling platform for consuming all kinds of text and multimedia material, including news.
This morning I spent way too much time with The Washington Post’s new iOS app, which is detailed at the Nieman Journalism lab by Shan Wang. It is beautiful, with large pictures and highly readable type. I was already a fan of what the Post is now calling “Washington Post Classic.” But this is better.
So do I have a complaint? Of course. The Classic app is more complete; it includes local news (no, I have no connection to the Washington area, but it’s nice to be able to look in on occasion), whereas the new app is aimed at “national, international audiences.”
And both apps rely more on viral content than the print edition, a sluggish version of which is included in Classic.
Quibbles aside, this is a great step forward, and evidence of the breakthroughs that are possible with technology billionaire Jeff Bezos in charge. In fact, the new app is a version of one that was released last fall for the Amazon Fire. So it’s also heartening to see that Bezos isn’t leveraging his ownership of the Post entirely to Amazon’s advantage.
Another paper with a billionaire owner has taken a different approach. Several months ago John Henry’s Boston Globe mothballed its iOS replica edition — that is, an edition based on images of the print paper — and replaced it with an app that is still print-centric but faster and easier to use. It was developed by miLibris, a French company.
The first few iterations were buggy, but it’s gotten better. In general, I’m not a fan of looking at the print edition on a screen. But I find that the Globe’s website is slow enough on my aging iPad that I often turn to the app just so I can zoom through the paper more quickly, even if I’m missing out on video and other Web extras.
One big bug that still needs to be squashed: When you try to tweet a story, the app generates a link that goes not to the story but, rather, to the Apple Store so that you can download the app. Which, of course, you already have.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the Boston Herald has a pretty nice iOS app, developed by DoApp of Minneapolis. It’s based on tiles, so it’s fast and simple to use. It’s so superior to the Herald’s creaky website that I wish there were a Web version.
Do apps for individual news organizations even matter? We are, after all, entering the age of Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles.
My provisional answer is that the news organizations should both experiment with and push back against the drive toward distributed content. It’s fine for news executives to cut deals with the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg. But it would be a huge mistake if, in the process, they let their own platforms wither.