WHEN FACEBOOK NEWS Feed guru Will Cathcart took the stage at F8 to talk about news, the audience was packed. Some followed along on Twitter. Others streamed the session online. Journalists, developers, and media types all clamored to catch a glimpse of “Creating Value for News Publishers and Readers on Facebook”—value that has become the most coveted asset in the news business as Facebook becomes a primary way the public finds and shares news.
As Cathcart kicked off the session, he took the captive audience to a Syrian refugee camp via Facebook’s new, innovative, and immersive 360 video experience. He didn’t say much about where the camp was (“I believe in Greece?”), nor anything about the camp situation. He didn’t offer the audio of the journalist describing the scene. No matter!
The refugee camp is a placeholder. A placeholder, in fact, that has become so overused that it was actually the second time yesterday that Facebook execs waved their hands about the importance of media before playing a video clip of refugees. It could have been a tour of the White House, the Boston bombing, Coachella. It could have been anything to Facebook. It’s “content.” It’s a commodity. What matters to Facebook is the product it’s selling—and who’s buying is you and the news industry.
What Facebook is selling you is pretty simple. It’s selling an experience, part of which includes news. That experience is dependent on content creators—you know, journalists and newsrooms—who come up with ideas, use their own resources to realize them, and then put them out into the world. All of which takes time, money, and skill. For its “media partners” (the CNNs, BuzzFeeds, and WIREDs of the world), Facebook is selling a promise that their future will be bright if they use Facebook’s latest news products to distribute those new, innovative, and immersive stories to Facebook’s giant audience.
The only problem is that Facebook’s promise isn’t a real one. It’s false hope; or at its worst, a threat.
News is crucial for Facebook. As people share fewer updates about themselves, the company says that 600 million people see a news story on Facebook each week. People have one billion—yes, billion—“media interactions” on Facebook every day, the company says. People, Cathcart said, come to Facebook to talk with their friends about news.
So, Facebook wants that experience to be a great—new, innovative, immersive!—one to keep you coming back. It’s built Instant Articles, so your articles load faster on your phone. It’s rolled out Live, so you can interact with your favorite newscasters, athletes, and musicians as they broadcast themselves live. It’s developed a 360-degree video format along with software and a camera that let you experience a news event like you’re there. And, now it’s opened up its API so you can chat with a newsbot from a publisher right there in your Messenger app.
In other words, the new ways to create and consume news are raining down from Facebook. All of which sounds pretty great for you, the news consumer. But for news organizations, these innovations come with an insidious imperative. With 1.5 billion people signing on around the world, Facebook has immense power. It has become a crucial distribution platform for publishers. Facebook has the audience news organizations are trying to reach, so they have little choice but to chase it there.
The relationship between the makers of news and their leading distributor is broken. Facebook now tells the industry what matters most, which dictates how resources are spent and what stories are told. Not in a sort of theoretical, hey-this-could-happen-someday kind of way, but a real, look-it’s-happening-all-around-us-already way. When Facebook says it will prioritize video in News Feed, every publisher that can afford to do so builds a video team. When Facebook says it will launch Live, publishers suddenly start streaming live. Facebook is setting the rules, and news organizations are following.
That’s concerning because the news industry is in a precarious way. Publishers have finite resources and limited time. Staff are overworked and underpaid. Every livestream of a watermelon exploding takes time, resources, and brainpower away from something else. That’s not to say we don’t need a livestream of a watermelon exploding. (We definitely do!) But all the iterations and copycats that will inevitably follow may wind up investing their money, people, and time in something faddish and fleeting that Facebook and the public may have already moved past by the time they figure out how to do it right.
If it’s not articles, then it’s videos. If it’s not videos, then it’s live. If it’s not live, then it’s bots. Facebook will continue to iterate and experiment with the kinds of experiences it thinks people using Facebook want. It’s trying to be new, innovative, immersive. It wants to stay cool to keep you coming back.
Publishers, meanwhile, will continue to clamor to keep up with the next best thing. They’ll reallocate resources, shift strategies, and change titles. They’ll tell the kinds of stories that work on Facebook for now, or, at the very least, tell some stories that work on Facebook for now. Because when Facebook says “jump,” you jump. Even if the company can’t promise the ground will be there when you fall.