‘Selfies’, early 18th century. (Kenwood House, London, wblau)

The newsfeed and Facebook’s China problem

Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to downgrade publishers in Facebook’s newsfeed seems like a knee-jerk reaction, a brash response to the negative reputation the company has acquired since Trump’s election.

What else has motivated him? There are reports about declining user engagement and an overall shift towards “private social” i.e. chat apps, especially amongst younger users. But there is more to this profound change in strategy. Call it Facebook‘s “China problem”.

News journalism has become a strategic burden for Facebook in its critical need to be a truly global player, which it isn’t. Not as long as they are not in China and always at risk of being thrown out of Russia or Turkey. There is zero strategic interest for Facebook to become a ‘publisher’, just like Apple has no reason to buy the New York Times, despite that being the object of never-ending speculation in the industry.

Owning the Times would be a political stone around Apple’s neck in China. Wrapping too much journalism around your brand is a mistake for any platform hoping to still make it into China, which is one of Mark Zuckerberg’s great ambitions. Why own publishing companies also or become a publisher yourself when you have the best publishers’ content and “brand-halo” for free on your own properties, even in a now downgraded newsfeed?

Let’s also not forget, though, that ‘newsfeed’ – when Facebook launched it in 2006, while still being the number two behind Myspace – was not meant for journalistic news at all. Its clever use by publishers was just one of these historic accidents initially and later on encouraged by Facebook.

And to be fair to Facebook, we as publishers all benefited tremendously from them, building international audiences and communities of a size hardly anyone could ever have dreamt of before newsfeed existed.

In more recent years, though, Facebook has invested heavily in convincing, encouraging, if not coercing publishers to produce and optimise their content for distribution on Facebook and to set up large video teams. This is what makes their “pulling of the plug” now so abrasive after the relationship between publishers and Facebook had already soured when their ‘instant articles’ initiative failed to help publishers commercially.

And as always, there was no advance notice about these changes to the newsfeed, except for a few select US publishers. No European, Asian or African publisher I am aware of received advanced warnings. In the end, culturally and in their selection of key staff, Facebook is still only an American company. When it comes to PR, their team shows a single focus on US media and the US stock market’s view on them and their product.

It is this continued intercultural incompetence and plain arrogance of Facebook which most likely will take Facebook down one day, also when competing against its – soon truly global and technologically advanced – competitors from China. (Tencent, one of China’s “big three” has recently surpassed a market cap of 500 billion USD, only about 20 billion behind Facebook.)

Publishers have no given right to be on Facebook, though, and the sense of entitlement in some of the industry‘s initial reactions is a waste of time.

There is no point also in proclaiming publishers would no longer need Facebook as it remains the world‘s most powerful distributor of that most precious of resources called attention. No matter which business model you pursue as a publishing company outside of China — paywalls, membership schemes, conferences, education services, brand licensing or advertising — I would like to see how you think you could afford to not keep using Facebook as a pathway to potential users, clients or communities who aren’t aware of your offers yet.

From a journalistic perspective, the most pressing question should be this: Will Facebook’s newsfeed changes favouring ‘people’ over ‘publishers’ reduce or accidentally increase the reach of extremists and propaganda? If it is Mark Zuckerberg’s commendable intention to algorithmically emphasise ‘meaningful interactions between people’, he should soon explain which metrics Facebook will apply to identify these.

We have all seen hate speech posts and deliberate pieces of misinformation on facebook with high numbers of shares, likes and comments, usually indicators of ‘meaningful interactions’.

Many of these posts had been published by ‘people’, not publishers.

And whatever might have motivated Mark Zuckerberg to order these dramatic changes, his power to shape facebook is limited: No institution, no company, no platform on this planet can have more than two billion active users and not be an integral part of the global news ecosystem. They will keep sharing news.

I believe Mark Zuckerberg, though, when he says he wants his children to ‘feel like what their father built was good for the world’. 
It is not too late for that and I wish him luck.

twitter: @wblau
media-related posts also on: https://www.facebook.com/wolfgang.blau

(see also Jeff Jarvis‘ questions about the newsfeed’s future here: 
https://medium.com/whither-news/facebooks-changes-235c9089ae40 )

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