The Startup
Published in

The Startup

The Difference Between “News on Social” and “Social News”

In the 1960’s Marshall Mcluhan wrote “the medium is the message.”

Today, the platform is the message.

News is created different when it is developed with a specific platform in mind. This has been one of the key new insights/traits of the industry over the last few years. Often called “Platform Intelligence.”

The biggest platform, the one we talk about most is Facebook. It is a platform designed to build identity and manage social relationships. That is Facebook’s Dharma.

When news comports itself to work on a platform that is built for constructing social identity and not for informing the reader about the world, the best content, the most “viral” or “engaging” or “shareable” content, will be ideological, to the extent that ideology constructs social identity.

Not all platforms treat news the same. So news is not consumed on all platforms in the same way.

The journalism industry and larger society is focused on Facebook, but think about how news plays differently on Facebook versus Reddit.

Reddit is a network based around the sharing of information. That is its “raison d’etre.” Even if information is wrong on Reddit there is an earnest conversation in the comments about the content itself. That’s why you’re on Reddit. It’s not to make friends. It’s not to tell your family or friends how your day was. It’s to get or share information.

This is not to say Reddit is the solution and Facebook is the problem.

Just as Tristan Harris is pointing out that subtle design decisions impact how our attention is manipulated by technology companies, there are design changes that impact the editorial output of major companies.

We know these design changes, because the shifts they’ve caused became an industry joke. “Pivot to video.”

So What Do We Do?

As a society we need to figure out a few things

  1. Should Facebook even be a place where people get their news?
  2. If we think it is, what platform/product changes should occur so that news isn’t in the same social space that it currently inhabits. The “news feed” is actually a social identity feed. Maybe, like it has for photos or direct messages, Facebook needs to create a unique product that best serves news producers and consumers.

On #2 above. See the section “A Real Solution” below — taken from an earlier Medium post on a similar topic.

A Real Solution

Facebook should break up its features into more concrete and discrete products. The recent move to take content from Pages and put it into the sidebar “Explore” section makes perfect sense in this spirit. It scares the shit out of publishers — but it’s actually part of a potential long-term solution to our current predicament. That word “exploration” isn’t just for users. This is a space where Facebook itself is “exploring” how it can approach these experiences, features and offerings free from the context of the newsfeed — which is dominated by identity.

Instagram, owned by Facebook, doesn’t have the same problem. Their main purpose isn’t as tied to identity. That’s not to say identity is absent from the product — but primarily, Instagram is about capturing and sharing beautiful moments. Those moments don’t have to define the person taking the picture. It’s possible for Facebook as a company to successfully run products that aren’t tied to identity.

…..But if Facebook wants to “fix” its “problem” — it has to begin by separating those experiences which are perverted when they are too intimately tied to identity. News needs to be tied to an experience that is designed to inform. Shopping needs to be tied to an experience that is tied to material needs/desires.

This of course is wishful thinking for anyone in the news industry.

Our current pickle is because we have become too reliant on Facebook to reach an audience. The idea that we are now reliant on them creating a platform that fits our needs/desires when approaching their audience seems…. Dubious.

But this is where again I look to Reddit. Not to say that is the ideal platform, but there is a lesson in it for us. The Washington Post has a full time team that engages with the Reddit community (Gene and team are killing it)

Reddit is a platform with news/information at its core. It was built as a response to the original Digg. In a world before Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat — there was Digg. A simple website where you would vote on what articles were the best. You had usernames and you could follow other users, but it was only to see what they submitted and to vote on it. The simplicity of the network gave it a razor sharp focus. It was in service of information.

The industry cannot make Facebook do anything, but we can push our own weight around, like the Washington Post, and invest in those platforms that we think build the kind of ecosystem we want. Ecosystems that are in service of information.

We can use this to “lobby” to our Facebook frienimies what we need. We can point to the success of an alternative ecosystem. We can create more competition for our industries attention and unique or custom content. In the end, that’s our best bargaining chip.


At this point, we are getting exceptionally well at stating the problem. One can make a career out of stating the problem today. But we remain hazy on potential solutions.

Perhaps because, as I acknowledge above, there is a real possibility the solution is out of our hands (as an industry) and might not even be in society’s hands. This could be up to our new social engineering autocrats. Will Mark be a tyrant, a philosopher king, or something in-between? He certainly has, throughout his helm at Facebook, come off as somebody who takes his position at the wheel seriously.

I’d be curious to hear from you. Is the Reddit example worth diving into more? What exactly are the features that make some social networks better for news distribution than others. If we can articular this with a full throat — would Facebook, Twitter, Google and others listen? Should they? Do we need them to?

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 287,184+ people.

Subscribe to receive our top stories here.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
David Cohn

David Cohn


Senior Director at Advance Publications innovation group. Twitter: @digidave or Do what I can to help. Also, I love you.