Mark Zuckerberg in 2013. Photo (cc) by JD Lasica.
Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
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.