Facebook has become “public enemy number one” for journalists, not to mention a “giant that may eat us.” And that’s just the Facebook business model of accumulating a massive global audience and then serving targeted ads to them in the news feed and videos—while controlling who sees what and deciding which content should be censored.
There’s also Facebook’s well documented missteps with Trending Topics, hiring low-level editors in poor working conditions and then letting them go when the algorithm was “trained” to pick top stories. Then there’s its many run-ins over data collection. And the most recent black eye for Facebook came when it admitted flubbing video metrics on its platform. Facebook acknowledged in its advertiser support page last month that when it came to the “average duration of video viewed,” it had only been counting views that lasted three seconds or longer. This discrepancy between its stated definition of the average duration of the video viewed with its calculation in practice means that Facebook exaggerated its video views for close to two years.
And yet, I remain optimistic that Facebook is far from public enemy number one for publishers, journalism or democracy. And it makes absolutely no sense to call out the platform for its errors without also trying to help make it better.
The Google Example
It wasn’t so long ago, about 2010, when we had another primary public enemy for the media and its name was Google. European media companies were up in arms over Google indexing their web pages, and Rupert Murdoch called Google a “parasite” and “content kleptomaniac” then. Mark Cuban called Google and content aggregators “vampires, they just suck on your blood.”
News Corp. took the extraordinary step of removing its content from the Google search engine. But two years later, the company reversed course because of fears that its newspapers were losing influence by not being in Google search. This is instructive because if news publishers believe they can just remove themselves from Facebook, where so many people get their news, then they are going to find themselves on an island.
Facebook is the current “enemy,” but there’s also Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, LinkedIn and many, many others—all of which tend to come and go. The reality is that smart publishers realize that they need to distribute their content natively wherever their audience wants to consume it. Rather than bemoan a loss of gatekeeping power, they need to suck it up and start doing the hard work of collaborating with the platforms to find better ways to work together.
Early on, Google didn’t really understand its power with the media, but eventually it became more open, and has boosted its efforts with news media through Google News Lab and a series of training opportunities for newsrooms. The same thing will happen at Facebook. Why? Because Facebook will lose its place in the media hierarchy if it doesn’t get its act together. People will leave the platform if the experience doesn’t feel right or trustworthy.
At the recent ONA conference in Denver, Facebook dominated the proceedings as the top sponsor, including a large presence in the Midway, with its logo literally up in the rafters. I mentioned that to a top Facebook media person in their booth and he said, “People complained about us being too opaque so here we are!”
He also pointed out that Facebook was hiring for its media partnerships team, with various job openings already posted for New York, including a person who will work specifically with local publishers. This is not the behavior of a platform dedicated to killing journalism and ruining democracy. And let’s face it: There’s a lot in it for Facebook to have good relationships with companies that produce the content people so readily consume on their platform.
The bottom line is that railing against Facebook’s power and clumsy use of it does little to improve the situation. What makes a lot more sense is turning down the rhetoric, rolling up our sleeves and figuring out how to educate Facebook on its issues, and find ways to open the lines of communication and do better moving forward.
I’ve already begun this work with a private roundtable last May at Bloomberg with top platforms and publishers, which led to a Special Series on MediaShift and a series of online trainings. And I plan to continue producing private gatherings to get publishers of all shapes and sizes and the platforms on the same page. While it’s good to forcefully point out the failings of Facebook and platforms, what will work better in the long run is finding common ground so that both sides can win in the long run.