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Facebook
Opinion
Why Facebook has abandoned news for the important business of trivia
John Naughton
Mark Zuckerberg has clearly decided that real news has become too troublesome to
bother with any more

Sun 21 Jan 2018 07.00 GMT

mark zuckerberg speaking at mobile world congress 2016 in barcelona

Connoisseurs of corporate cant have a new collector’s item: Mark Zuckerberg’s


latest Epistle to his Disciples. “We built Facebook,” it begins, “to help people
stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us.
That’s why we’ve always put friends and family at the core of the experience.
Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our wellbeing and
happiness.”

Quite so. But all is not well, it seems. “Recently,” continues Zuck, sorrowfully,
“we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content – posts from
businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to
connect more with each other.”

Well, well. How did this happen? Simple: it turns out that “video and other public
content have exploded on Facebook in the past couple of years. Since there’s more
public content than posts from your friends and family, the balance of what’s in
news feed has shifted away from the most important thing Facebook can do – help us
connect with each other.”

Facebook’s pivot towards 'friends and family' is a pragmatic tactic to take the
political heat off social media

Note the impersonality of all this. Somehow, this pestilential content has
“exploded” on Facebook. Which is odd, is it not, given that nothing appears in a
user’s news feed that isn’t decided by Facebook? What was actually going on, of
course, was that the company’s algorithms explicitly selected the aforesaid
objectionable content and displayed it, in order to ensure the continued growth of
Facebook’s advertising revenues. The company’s annual results are due at the end of
this month and will doubtless demonstrate the astonishing profitability of
polluting the news feed in this way.

But – hark! – Zuckerberg has seen the error of his ways. He has apparently been
doing research which “shows that when we use social media to connect with people we
care about, it can be good for our wellbeing. We can feel more connected and less
lonely, and that correlates with long-term measures of happiness and health. On the
other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos – even if they’re
entertaining or informative – may not be as good.” Accordingly, Facebook is going
to change its algorithms so that instead of “focusing on helping you find relevant
content” they will henceforth be concerned with “helping you have more meaningful
social interactions”.

At this point, readers of a charitable disposition may be tempted to reach for the
gospel according to Luke, chapter 15, verse 10: “Likewise, I say unto you, there is
joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents.” Newspaper
columnists, however, are neither paid, nor disposed, to be charitable, so let us
examine Zuckerberg’s Pauline conversion with a less sympathetic eye.

What has happened is that Facebook’s boss has concluded that allowing publishers of
news – both pukka and bogus – on to Facebook is more trouble than it is worth. Or,
as Frederic Filloux, an astute observer of these matters, puts it in his blog: “For
Facebook, journalism has been a pain in the neck from day one. Now, bogged down
with the insoluble problems of fake news and bad PR, it’s clear that Facebook will
gradually pull the plug on news. Publishers should stop whining and move on.”

En passant it’s worth noting that it’s not that long ago since publishers convinced
themselves that Facebook was the future. The company lured them by dangling
tantalising baubles – the news feed, instant articles and Facebook live, to name
just three – before their wondering eyes. And they went for them like PG
Wodehouse’s ostriches went for brass doorknobs (which is to say, swallowing them
whole). Ordinarily sober media outfits were seduced by the promise of “a deluge of
eyeballs” (Filloux again) and some invested heavily in dedicated teams to promote
their presence on Facebook. All of which only goes to show that there’s a sucker
born every minute. What these schmucks learned was that the returns on those
investments were mostly minuscule; and now they discover that Zuckerberg viewed
them all along much as Lenin regarded western communist sympathisers – useful
idiots.

Facebook’s pivot towards “friends and family” is a pragmatic tactic to take the
political heat off social media. Zuckerberg and his corporate peers are tired of
being hectored by congressional committees and accused of being Russian stooges. It
could also be strategically astute, if it turns out to be true that users are
actually more “engaged” with holiday snaps and so on, because increasing
monetisable engagement is essential to the company’s future profitability.

The more time people waste on the site the better it is for Facebook. But since the
company’s business model remains exactly the same, it remains vulnerable to the
kind of abuses that have caused the pivot in the first place. In the end, it’s just
an advertising company pretending to be a social service, and no amount of
corporate cant can disguise that awkward fact.
Topics

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Opinion
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