At this point you’ve probably already read not only about Facebook’s change to the News Feed to remove most of the “news” from it and prioritize the display of updates from friends and family. You’ve also, if you’re anything like me, already read dozens and dozens of hot take commentaries on that change, what it means for media companies and how it has the potential to significantly influence public discourse, especially given the network’s role as the chief source of news for a good chunk of the American people.
TL;DR: The word “meaningful” is used a lot, but it’s still an AI being used to make that determination. And “meaningful” apparently doesn’t overlap with any sort of mission to create an educated and informed electorate. In fact, this seems to be Facebook retreating from any sort of news dissemination role, likely because doing so shields it from culpability the next time Russian agents attempt to influence elections. It gets to maintain the fiction it’s not a media company while still selling media companies ads to generate site traffic.
With the change, publishers are looking for the latest in a series of lifelines from the cinder block Facebook has tied around its ankle and is hoping the one offered by Facebook itself will at least tide them over. Never mind that none of the previous offers of help from Facebook to mitigate the damage done by Facebook have ever turned out to publishers’ advantage. They’re apparently sure that this time, unlike previous guidance to write short, useful headlines or to pivot fully to video or anything else will be different.
The latest salvation presented to publishers is Groups, Facebook’s message board-like feature. They’re using it as less a news distribution tool and more as a brand building and community feedback system, one where they can take readers and subscribers behind the curtain a bit and reinforce their reputations.
That’s great. But remind me why they couldn’t do that on-domain?
The answer is likely that in order to effectively do so the publishers would have needed to get those efforts underway a decade ago, and at that time they were still busy decrying the intrusion of Craiglist on their advertising business, blissfully unaware that the demise of classifieds would be nothing compared to the utter destruction of their brand advertising revenue. They would have needed to build dedicated teams and fleshed out their own tech stack to really make it work, but even simple on-site comment moderation proved to be beyond the ken of most companies, who gladly outsourced that to Facebook – or shut them down completely – as soon as they could.
It’s not as if the Groups solution is written in stone, though. Facebook right now is promoting that to publishers as a great way to engage with readers more meaningfully – there’s that word again – and not be subject to the whims of the News Feed. Let’s see how that’s playing out six months from now when the company decides to deprecate Groups and transition to some new feature that once more is not advantageous to media producers. The rules have been changed so many times, it’s naive to think this won’t turn out to be the salvation it’s currently presented as being.
The Groups shift isn’t just being sold to publishers, brands and media organizations, though. You can usually tell where Facebook’s priorities lie by what it places above the fold when you log in. For a long while that’s included prompts to share memories, either old posts or the day you connected with a friend on the network. Facebook has, at least according to some recent data, a post problem in that people aren’t producing enough of them. So it’s unsurprising, given last week’s shifts and announcements, that this is what I saw when I logged on for the first time in a while.
Facebook wants everyone to get hip to Groups, apparently positioning it as a more self-selected alternative to the News Feed, ignoring the fact that the entire point of Facebook is that the inputs and connections are self-selected.
I keep thinking *this* will be the moment of clarity for publishers, when they finally realize they need to seize back control of their own fate. Instead they keep looking for help from the same rival – that’s what Facebook is – that has hurt them at every turn.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.