Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:
Facebook on Thursday introduced major changes to its News Feed that will prioritize content it hopes will spark meaningful conversations between friends while deprioritizing content from businesses, brands, and media. The move is widely expected to hurt publishers that rely on traffic from Facebook.
Fred Vogelstein interviewed Adam Mosseri of Facebook for Wired:
FV: Talk to me about like the evolution of this. What’s changed over the course of the past 18 months to make you feel like this is something worth doing?
AM: The biggest thing has been just the explosion of video. Video is a paradigm shift in a lot of different ways. We’ve done a lot to try and nurture it. We think video is going to continue to be a more and more important part about how people communicate with each other, and how publishers communicate with people.
But as video has grown on Facebook, it has changed the nature of how people interact with the platform in a lot of different ways. Video is, primarily, a passive experience. You tend to just sit back and watch it. And while you’re watching it, you’re not usually liking or comment or speaking with friends. So this change is, in part, a reaction to how the ecosystem has shifted around us.
Less than a year ago, Facebook was actively encouraging publishers to create video specifically for their platform. Entire companies laid off employees and began a “pivot to video”, to the extent that even that phrase became a cliché in publisher circles, but most of the videos were lightly edited ads that — unsurprisingly — failed to find an audience. In a handful of markets, Facebook already moved publishers’ posts to a secondary news feed, with predictable consequences.
It is absolutely critical for publishers to disconnect from their reliance upon major referrers like Facebook and Google. And, yet, I’m not sure that’s realistic for a lot of major media organizations. Referral traffic remains a massive source of visitors — as Casey Newton points out, however, visitors are not the same thing as an audience. And, as I wrote six months ago, I think it’s a mistake to write off changes by referral sources as the fault of the publisher for relying upon that traffic:
As companies like Facebook and Google increasingly dominate actual publishers for how users get their news, even creating proprietary formats like Instant Stories and AMP for preferential treatment, shouldn’t their practices be scrutinized to a greater degree? Is it really fair for the rug to be pulled out from under publishers’ feet when their primary referrer decides it’s convenient for their business model? Does it make sense for the future of the worldwide digital media economy to be decided by a few young men in California? To return to the argument against publishers’ reliance upon traffic sources like Facebook and Google, is it possible to build a successful new publication without them?
Publishers shouldn’t be reliant upon Facebook and Google sending them traffic,1 but that truth also abdicates the responsibility of large tech companies.
Joshua Topolsky of the Outline is optimistic that the hit to publishers from a lack of Facebook traffic won’t be as significant as the hit to Facebook from a lack of news posts:
Facebook, despite all its best intentions, is still just a dumb pipe — a thing that delivers, not the thing itself. The pipe must be filled up, yes, with stuff like groups you belong to and photos of new babies, yes with Messenger conversations and events and fundraisers. But information is currency, and what is valuable to most people is to know what the fuck is going on in the world and to try and understand it. That doesn’t go away because Facebook wants to keep its hands clean. It simply goes somewhere else. Even the market had a negative reaction to this news, stripping around $25 billion off the network’s market cap following the announcement. I don’t think that’s a fluke — I think Facebook doesn’t know what its product really is.
Frankly, any publisher relying on Facebook for survival fucked up. But there’s a flip side to this. There’s the opportunity for outlets willing to rely less on social networks to set their fate, publishers who have diversified their traffic sources, who have pushed back on Facebook’s News Feed carrots, who have built (or are building) brands that resonate with audiences beyond what can be bought or given. Value not gifted by Facebook could be a very good thing for publishers. (And yes, I get that I’m also talking about The Outline, which is fighting for its right to survive in a very uncertain landscape every single day.)
I hope this means a new dawn for good publications, and an awakening to build a dedicated audience instead of simply driving traffic.2 I also think that this unfairly excuses Facebook from building their business on publishers and media for years. A consequence Facebook would understand is if their active users dropped — unfortunately, even if you, I, and most of the people we know stopped using Facebook, their Borg-like dominance on the web is unparalleled. But we can make a difference in the fortunes of publishers: support them financially by subscribing.
Update: Borzou Daragahi:
Terrifying to think how much one rich man’s decision on what direction he wants to take his company will have an impact on people’s epistemological sense of self – how they perceive the world. It’s too much power.