Facebook wants to be a World Wide Paperboy

Will a packaged internet platform defeat the open web?

This could either save or bring down the global media industry. The New York Times reports that Facebook has been quietly negotiating a deal with the world’s leading media outlets to host their content on its platform. This would allow users to consume news articles on Facebook instead of having to switch to separate media org’s websites (which can take up to eight seconds on mobile devices).

In return, Facebook offers the publishers to split the ad revenues. An additional advantage here is in Facebook’s ability to customize ads based on the personal data Facebook has on each and every user. FB

Should this deal go through, online media is looking at a turning point in its history. There are a number of implications to this.

  1. The publishers will indeed gain a bigger readership and, what’s even more important, a larger ad-consumer audience.
  2. However, the publishers will lose control of both their audience and content. Moreover, the more successful a publisher’s transition to Facebook proves to be, the more fatal the consequences. There will be no going back to the publisher’s original website after a while, because the original website will simply no longer exist.
  3. The news giants who join in first might make a scoop and create a frenzy among the other media outlets hurrying to get a piece of the cake. After this, the entire media business will cease to exist as a self-standing market. Having gained its way in as a mailman, Facebook will turn the world’s publishers into nothing more than its content-producing subsidiaries.

This is what awaits the media, should it fall into Facebook’s honey trap. The late David Carr, a prominent NYT media critic, was one of the first to publish a warning, in October 2014, about the social networking company’s attempts to woo media companies. He compared Facebook to a “big dog galloping toward you in the park. It’s hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you.” At the end of his article, Carr summed up: “The Facebook dog is loose, and he’s acting more friendly than hungry. But everyone knows that if the dog is big enough, he can lick you to death as well.”

Today, just like last October, the news world is reacting mainly with a wave of protest. But the offer might prove to be too good to resist, especially for those publishers who, as Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton put it, have no hope of being able to charge for their content. In conclusion, Benton writes, “it’s also the sort of decision that one might look back on in a few years as the moment you got swindled.”

It should be noted that attempts to herd the media content from the open pastures of the World Wide Web into a closed environment have already been made previously. For instance, The Washington Post launched its “Social Reader” app on Facebook in 2011, and it scored WP millions of views by prompting the users to check out the news articles that their Facebook friends had read. However, the users got so quickly fed up with the annoying links that Facebook was forced to reprogram it to refer readers to some lighter and more fun stuff, and all this “read an interesting article” business ended right there and then. Ryan Chittum’s analysis of this story in the Columbia Journalism Review was as follows: “This was unethical, first, but it also was bad business, since it was entirely dependent on another company’s policies.”

There is, however, a question of a much bigger scale lurking behind these doubts and concerns about the fate of the media industry. Will a packaged internet platform (where a user consumes all online content inside one closed ecosystem, a sort of “walled garden”) defeat the open web, as some thought possible about four years ago? It was the time when the media discovered iPad apps and got excited about them: The Washington Post was spamming its readers via Facebook, and Murdock even launched an “iPad-only” newspaper called The Daily. That fashion died down pretty quickly, Murdock put his project on a dusty shelf, and yet now here we go again, with a new design for old ideas.

“Once companies reach a certain scale online, they have a tendency to decide that while they love the Internet, they would like a better version,” pointed out David Carr in his article of October 2014. True as it may be, I still tend to believe that an open-architecture environment such as the internet cannot be taken over by some part of it, and be rebuilt on the principles of “walled garden” architecture. The reason for that is that in an open environment, the most valuable information is to be shared, whereas in a closed environment, the most valuable information is to be concealed, which contradicts the very nature of the internet. The value of the open environment is in sharing and therefore in contributing, while the value of the closed system is in supporting a deficit and therefore in consuming. These are two different stages in the evolution of human interaction. One is not only a step ahead of the other; they have different morphologies. There’s no going back in time. Apps can certainly compete with the World Wide Web for the user’s time, but they cannot replace the World Wide Web.

One could certainly hypothesize that a certain packaged platform might grow so big that it will engulf everything. That’s exactly what Joshua Benton was writing about: “Facebook wants to be the new World Wide Web.” Thus, the question now is how big Facebook can grow.

Right now, the Facebook population roughly equals that of China, i.e. about 1.4 billion people. However, China has completed its demographic transition and managed to curb its population growth. It seems like the limits to the Facebook community are similarly fathomable. What if there is another “Dunbar’s number”, limiting the largest thinkable size of human community of any sort? (British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that a primate’s brain allows it to comfortably maintain 150-200 stable relationships, which predetermines the number of apes in a troop, or dwellers in a primordial village, or people in an efficiently functioning community.) What if the limit to the largest possible human community is somewhere in the vicinity of the number of people currently in China, or on Facebook?

A network that functions as a principle rather than as a community cannot have any “organizational” limitations. An open network expands as long as there is an untapped audience, because it is driven by sharing. Content-sharing is the perfect socializing tool for users. Users actively seek out ways to serve one another with relevant and interesting content in order to extend their areas of self-expression, i.e. their social status. Therefore, endlessly growing connections are a quality inherent to an open network’s morphology. In contrast, for a platform, growth is an artificial goal (whether of commercial or of political nature) that is set for achievement through the owner’s effort. The example that proves this is right on the surface: Facebook is holding negotiations with the publishers… while the internet isn’t – no needs.

This “drawback”, however, cannot prevent Facebook, in theory, from manipulating the media in plenty of ways. Even within the theoretical limit of about a billion and a half, the size of the Facebook community surpasses the total audience covered by media by orders of magnitude.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon

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Categories: Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Future of news

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