Shortly before the elections in the summer, I was sat outside Dublin Airport trying to get an Uber ride to the Irish Mirror. A pop-up appeared on my screen telling me it was important to make sure I’d registered to vote.
Uber – reminding me of my civic duty to vote. Doing, in some ways, what the media has always tried to do, combining a role in civic life with the need to appeal to people, and occasionally being prepared to say to readers sometimes: “Hey, this is important.”
But how do we do that in a world of distributed platforms, and where eyeballs = money in the bank?
It’s a dilemma every social media editor will have faced — the need to get something out which is clearly important versus the very real risk that if readers on Facebook don’t feel it’s important, all in the knowledge that the signals Facebook will pick up will suggest you’ve suddenly got bad at knowing what your readers want.
And then Facebook penalises your subsequent posts, reaching fewer people than expected. And so the world of playing to get back in Facebook’s algorithmic good books begins. How do you overcome that?
But this isn’t a post to join the chorus of people decrying Facebook as ‘journalism’s public enemy number one,’ as the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade rather sensationally announced last week. In fact, it’s wrong to say Facebook is journalism’s biggest problem. Facebook is a symptom of two problems facing journalism.
The supermarket of the internet
The first problem is the fact that advertising pounds follow audiences and while publishing companies dithered over how to handle online – most choosing to see it as a threat rather than an opportunity – tech companies like Facebook (and it wasn’t the first) came along with platforms which put the audience first. And the audience responded. So journalism’s challenge is to match eyeballs to our content on their platform.
Those who shout ‘clickbait’ whenever audience analytics are discussed miss the obvious, and second problem which people blame Facebook for. Facebook doesn’t, as many contend, decide what news people see. It’s not that sinister.
It has simply built a tool which serves up to individuals what Facebook thinks people want to see based on that individual’s previous actions, and the actions of their friends. If people aren’t finding and reading our news on Facebook, we are far better off working out why not and working within the system rather than denouncing Facebook as the problem.
Facebook is to internet journalism what supermarkets were when they began selling newspapers: A huge factor in determining how many people see what we’ve done. Like supermarkets, Facebook determines our prominence based on what its audience is telling them. Ultimately, supermarkets don’t determine whether a newspaper sells, the reader who decides whether to buy it does.
But at least Facebook accept it needs journalism within its platform. At the Online News Association conference in Denver last week, Facebook was on something of a charm offensive with the media. Fidji Simo, the company’s director of product promised revenue for Facebook Live video, for Facebook native video and further opportunities to make more money from Facebook Instant Articles.
Simo was keen to stress the company wanted to be a the friend of the media, helping newsrooms to grow audience on websites, drive revenue on your own platforms (if you are part of their ad network) and monetise activity on Facebook too.
Placing trust in publishers
So that’s part of the revenue argument dealt with. But what about the concerns around news selection?
Simo told the conference: “What we care about is giving people the experience where they get to see what they want to see in newsfeed.
“We play a big role in the media industry and take that responsibility very seriously. We are not in the business of picking the topics people should care about.
“We see ourselves as a platforms to connect publishers to the people who want to see that content.”
But what if people don’t realise they want or need to see the content? How do we solve that?
The answer, I think, is simple. Facebook needs to start trusting publishers more and accept that there are occasions where the importance of news transcends the algorihtm.
Discussing Facebook Live, Simo said the company planned to introduce the ability for publishers to flag up live content which might be a little sensitive – maybe a breaking news story which could end badly.
That feels like a breakthrough in the media’s relationship with Facebook. As Facebook moves into providing real-time tools, it finds itself having to rely on the media brands within its ‘walled garden’ to flag up if something might offend people. That feels like the start of a relationship built on trust.
A media panic button for important stories?
So here’s my idea for what Facebook should do next: Provide publishers with the ability to occasionally over-ride the algorithm and get exposure for stories which warrant that exposure because they are important to civic life.
Of course, many will argue Facebook has that tool now – the ability to buy additional reach by ‘boosting’ posts through payment. But Simo was keen to stress that Facebook’s users tell them they value informational content on Facebook, so shouldn’t it do more to help get information which people sometimes need, but don’t always realise they need, out there?
Perhaps publishers who are using Instant Articles, who spend a lot of time in analytics (Simo also said the most successful Facebook publishers were those who spend a lot of time looking at analytics), who work hard to get posts shared and who maintain strong communities within the comments, could be trusted with the ability to tick a box which essentially tells Facebook: “Listen, this is important, but it might obviously get the reach but we need you to help us out here.”
Obviously, such an idea is open to abuse, but a tech company of Facebook’s size can surely manage that.
To quote Roy Greenslade:
He said: “The Facebookisation of news has the potential to destabilise democracy by, first, controlling what we read and, second, by destroying the outlets that provide that material.”
It’s easy to blame journalism’s woes on Facebook – but actually the problem is more about how super-serving personalised content creates silos in which people subsequently live.
Simo added: “Facebook is a reflection on how people engage in the real world and in the real world people tend to connect with friends which have similar opinions.
“At a large scale of many friends… you actually having a lot of friends who have diverse opinions.
“Facebook makes it very easy to see these different opinions. Whether from your friends or from other pages on the site that appear in your feed because your friends share them or we suggest them. We are thinking about how to make it as easy as possible to connect to any source and get exposed to a range of opinions.”
But it’s not just about counter opinions, it’s about trusting publishers to share things which matter to local life. Facebook is seeing the same problem as publishers, but from the other end of the lens.
It’s not about debating whether Facebook is a tech or media company. That’s boring. It’s about understanding that any organisation which spends a lot of time serving content to people and helps shape their world has a role to play in civic life.
And that’s why Facebook needs to give publishers it trusts a civic life engagement button. Everyone benefits from a more knowledgable, engaged community in real life. Fingers crossed, someone at Facebook is listening.