Facebook strikes back

Knocked down, but trying to get back up again

Facebook is widely regarded as one of the main instigators of the rapid degradation of news, but it appears it won’t let perception hold it back. Inspired (perhaps) by the Chumbawumba song, the company has been knocked down but is getting back up again with a fresh attempt at news aggregation.

What’s Facebook trying to do?

The idea is this: Facebook is offering huge sums of money (reportedly worth millions) to publishers, including ABC News, Bloomberg, and the Washington Post, to license and feature their content on a new ‘news tab’ that is expected to arrive later this year.

Why’s it trying to do it?

Facebook used to rule the digital publishing world. Remember the pivot to video saga? This was caused by Facebook exaggerating the importance of video to publishers and advertisers to keep users inside the Facebook ecosystem - the world believed Facebook because it was such an important and powerful platform (in hindsight, how could we have been so stupid).

Facebook Instant Articles is another example of Facebook’s publishing might in the mid-2010s: somewhat like Google AMP, these were pages designed to load quickly but keep users inside the Facebook platform (ie. not taking them to a publisher’s site).

That period of Facebook might have only been a few years ago, but it feels like a fading memory. Since then the furore around fake news and clickbait has forced the company to take a different tack, changing its algorithm to serve more personal and localized content, and repositioning its brand to be about personal relationships (we’ve all seen those irl ads, right?)

So this is its attempt to have another go - if the algorithm tweaks and the rebrand were Facebook lying low and waiting for everything to blow over, this news is the company coming out and surveying the lay of the land. One would imagine that Facebook sees it as an attempt as a fresh start in the news and publishing space.

Lessons from Apple News+

Facebook’s move is worth contrasting with Apple News+. This initiative was launched by Apple back in March, and is essentially Spotify for content, with publishers receiving only a small cut of revenue from the company (recent reports suggest they’ve been very disappointed with the results).

With the product faltering, there’s a clear opportunity for Facebook to come back and retrieve its crown. Moreover, the idea of licensing content into a specific section of Facebook, rather than just allowing a chaotic free-for-all across every user’s news feed feels like Facebook is taking some of the thinking done by Apple. Furthermore, it also feels like it’s responding to the lessons of the last half a decade or so - a licensing model essentially makes Facebook a curator, which means it can be friendly to wealthy publishers and media brands while retaining some degree of control.

Is this an attempt to change the Facebook brand?

I’m cynical about how successful this will be - for publishers and Facebook.

To a certain extent the problem isn’t the idea itself. The idea of having a curated feed of news isn’t terrible. But the challenge for Facebook is that it now has an image problem - it’s not growing in the areas it wants to grow with younger users migrating to other platforms and applications.

In turn, that means it’s no longer an exciting proposition for publishers either. Sure, it might help a little bit, but it’s hardly going to be the future of news.

I’m starting to wonder if maybe - just maybe - Silicon Valley doesn’t understand publishing and doesn’t understand users. It’s had it’s moment, but it fucked it up. Now we’re all looking for something better.