How Facebook stole the news business

Business

Big news outlets stupidly sold their soul to Facebook. Desperate for the referral traffic Facebook dangled, they spent the past few years jumping through its hoops only to be cut out of the equation. Instead of developing an owned audience of homepage visitors and newsletter subscribers, they let Facebook brainwash readers into thinking it was their source of information.

Now Facebook is pushing into local news, but publishers should be wary of making the same crooked deal. It might provide more exposure and traffic for smaller outlets today, but it could teach users they only need to visit Facebook for local news in the future. Here’s how Facebook retrained us over the past 12 years to drain the dollars out of news.

Users first is Facebook first later

To be clear, Facebook’s intention, that I believe to be earnest, is to foster stronger ties between its users and their communities to boost well-being. But that doesn’t mean ripple effects are positive. The critical lens through which to view all of Facebook’s strategy is that in the short term it puts users first, itself second and everyone else a distant, distant third. That includes developers, advertisers and definitely news publishers.

This strategy is actually self-serving in the long term, though, because Facebook only continues to dominate because its users don’t leave. Back in 2010, Facebook decimated the virality of game developers like Zynga, which made lots of money because their News Feed spam threatened to push people away from the social network. That short-term hit to the bottom line paved the way for the depth of engagement that fuels quarters where Facebook earns $4 billion today.

This explains CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that Facebook would make changes to enhance well-being even if it decreased time spent on the site or its ad revenue. Those consequences may be true in the short term. But it’s a shrewd tactic when you zoom out. Left unchecked, the “Time Well Spent” movement could metastasize into a “Time to leave Facebook” movement. Better to trade away a few minutes per day per user now to keep those users for years to come.

Retraining news readers

When Facebook started, there was no feed. You browsed from profile to profile to check up on friends. News Feed’s launch in 2006 retrained users to just go to the Facebook home page where everything would come to you. Brands followed, investing to build an audience through Facebook’s churning stream of content.

As Facebook’s users shifted from PCs and Macs to Androids and iPhones, the company struck upon an enduring format for mobile. Desktop computers had big enough screens to accomodate multiple windows, and switching between browser tabs was quick, allowing users to easily hop between different sites. But on mobile with tiny screens, low quality app, poor connections, slow-loading sites, people seized upon Facebook’s single app that pulled together content from everywhere. Facebook began to train us to keep scrolling rather than struggle to bounce around.