The social network is hosting content rather than send users to websites. What's that going to mean for publishers?
What are the chances you came to this article after picking up your phone and opening the Facebook app?
The probability is pretty high – and it’s rising fast. That’s bad news for most traditional publishers. Facebook can, almost single-handedly, make or break media companies: if it sends you traffic you’re golden; if it takes it away, you’re toast. The result is the companies tend to treat Facebook rather as they would a fickle autocrat: there’s a lot of second-guessing of what it wants, combined with a great deal of fear of what it might wake up one morning and do.
Still, until recently, it wasn’t personal. Facebook’s algorithms, like Google’s, were always a bit mysterious, but at least the playing field was level. If ViralNova suddenly started getting millions of unique visitors from Facebook by using curiosity-gap headlines, then Distractify could play the same game – and, when everybody got tired of such things, Facebook could (and did) pretty much end them at a stroke. The algorithm might be fickle – but there was some understanding it was a necessary evil: you simply have too many Facebook friends and random acquaintances for the company to try to show you every photo, comment, link and status update from everybody you’re connected to. The News Feed needs to get filtered down somehow.
But then things started to change, as Facebook went on what was innocuously billed as a “listening tour”. The kind of listening tour that is, which, in the words of David Carr, “sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike”. Today’s Facebook, it seems, has decided that it doesn’t particularly like sending its users to publishers’ sites at all. It would much rather host their content on its own servers. Which means publishers are likely to get stuck on the horns of a very painful dilemma. If they do what Facebook wants, they have to share ad revenue with it – and lose precious data on their readers. But if they remain independent of Facebook, they risk losing a crucial source of traffic.