The Zuckerberg Bargain

Maya Kosoff, in a Vanity Fair piece with the exceptional headline “Facebook Casually Considers Annihilating the Digital Media Industry”:

Last week, Facebook launched a secondary news feed called Explore, which features posts from Facebook Pages that users don’t follow. (Facebook Pages are profiles for businesses, media organizations, public figures, and other groups.) This is different from News Feed, the primary feed where users are shown posts from Pages they follow, and from their friends. In six markets, The Guardian reports, Facebook is running a test wherein it removes all posts published on Facebook Pages from the main News Feed, integrating them into the “Explore” feed instead. Now, users’ main News Feed is only for posts from friends, advertisements, and posts that groups running Facebook Pages pay to promote. In other words, in markets where the test is active, Facebook is no longer a free playing field for digital publishers.

Cambodia is one of the six markets where this separation is being tested. Alexis C. Madrigal of the Atlantic writes about the impact it has had on publishers there:

“It’s too early to say anything definitive about the impact this is having on our traffic and reach,” Jenni Reid, the web editor at The Phnom Penh Post, told me. “The two feeds still don’t seem to be fully separated yet for some people here in Cambodia, but so far it doesn’t look positive.”


These changes are significant for the broader media ecosystem in Cambodia, Reid said. “Last year, Facebook edged ahead of television as the number-one source of news for Cambodians according to one survey. Post Khmer, the Khmer-language Facebook page for the Phnom Penh Post, has the fourth-most likes in the country, and seven out of 10 of the most popular Facebook pages here are news websites or newspapers,” she told me. “That’s striking compared to, say, the United States, where there isn’t even a news publisher in the top 50 most popular pages among Facebook users.”

The arguments you’re about to hear you’ve heard before. I get that.

You would have to be completely deluded to think that Facebook does not enjoy having two billion people using its website monthly, especially for their data-collecting ad-centric business model. One of the reasons they’ve been able to grow and retain such a large user base — in spite of how much we hate it — is because it’s constantly full of stuff: status updates, photos, videos, games, and news stories. The media is critical to Facebook’s growth; the company previously made changes to its News Feed to improve the rankings for shared links to publishers from users and pages.

But now, Facebook is considering cutting the free version of that off. Publishers can either pay to promote their stories in users’ feeds, or they can be relegated to a secondary feed that very few people will read.

I think it’s pretty easy to say that publishers should not be reliant upon traffic from any third-party source, but that minimizes the responsibility these companies now have on a worldwide scale. 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?

I don’t know the absolute answers to any of these questions. I suspect that any of them would inspire a lengthy debate. My best guesses, though, are absolutely, but not by this American administration, not entirely, no, and I doubt it.