Do As Facebook Says, Not As It Does

This week, David Carr writes about Facebook’s increasingly psychodramatic relationship with publishers, who, whether or not they’ve actively catered to the site, have come to depend on it profoundly. The column also carries a bit of news, which has been circulating as a likely theoretical for the last year or so, but which now seems to be real:

The company has been on something of a listening tour with publishers, discussing better ways to collaborate. The social network has been eager to help publishers do a better job of servicing readers in the News Feed, including improving their approach to mobile in a variety of ways. One possibility it mentioned was for publishers to simply send pages to Facebook that would live inside the social network’s mobile app and be hosted by its servers; that way, they would load quickly with ads that Facebook sells. The revenue would be shared.

There are publishers who have been waiting for this opportunity. Some are small, and already depend entirely on Facebook for distribution — they are not, by any familiar definition, diverse news publications. Some are large, and see a short-term opportunity: They’re already optimizing for Facebook with “TRENDING NEWS” teams and the like, so they would be glad to remove any friction between their most viral posts and the cascading feed at which they were intentionally angled. Direct publishing could be a way to directly monetize this ᴄᴏɴᴛᴇɴᴛ, and to counteract a Facebook-driven dilution of traditional ad rates for websites. Or even to sell ads against posts a second time, to a different audience (first on your site, then on Facebook’s site).

One way to look at this, which situates Facebook neither as an evil force colonizing publishing nor as a lumbering dumb beast grabbing at everything around it, is to try to see what kind of example it’s setting. Facebook — the company, not the site — has spent the last few years diversifying. It spent many billions of dollars on a messaging app that was already successful; it spent a couple billion on a virtual reality helmet that it finds promising. It bought Instagram, watched it grow larger than Twitter, and then filled it with ads. It threw weight behind Facebook-adjacent internal projects, such as Slingshot, Paper, and Rooms, none of which have caught on, not that it matters yet — Facebook has a lot of cash and at least some time to figure out its next contraption to convert human attention into money.

Implicit in this behavior is an acknowledgment that Facebook proper, the News Feed, is not the future of the company. It’s how it makes most of its money now, and next year, and who knows for how many years after that. But Facebook, a large company run by competent people, is attempting to plan against the unforeseeable and the inevitable. It’s leaders don’t know for sure what’s coming next, but they know they need to be a part of it. They know that preferences change and tides turn and that their old site, the single feed of photos and updates and links from a mishmash of friends and family and coworkers assembled over a decade, the first hugely successful smartphone platform but definitely not the last, will eventually give way to something else. This is a sensible way to look at the world, if you are Facebook. Or if you are any company on the internet!

Facebook, a company with lots of cash and great short-term prospects, is diversifying its company as fast as it possibly can. At the same time, it is asking publishers — many of whom have very little cash and uncertain short-term prospects — to do the opposite. It’s asking publications to go all-in, or to raise their bets on Facebook substantially. It is asking to do as Facebook says, not as it does.

Near the end of Carr’s column, Facebook offers its customary assurances:

Chris Cox, chief product officer for Facebook, knows that the frightened chatter is out there, but says those worries are unfounded because the interests of Facebook and digital publishers are pretty much aligned.

If this is true, that Facebook believes its priorities to be aligned with those of publishers,* then publications should consider what will happen when this ceases to be the case — when Facebook, like virtually every large tech company that has survived for more than five years, changes forms, finds its next cash cow, stops paying attention to News Feed, and puts its partners out to pasture. (Or if it fails!)

For the most eager partners, the ones who were first in line, the ones who had the most faith in the alignment of their priorities with the big friendly tech company’s, the ones who reaped the most, in the beginning, from Facebook’s content rush: What, by then, will be left of your publication? Or, if you’re not so romantic, of your business?

*Of all the Facebook employees I’ve spoken to, none have made a convincing case that this is true or even held to be true within the company. In most cases it has not been clear that there is a widespread understanding within Facebook of its power over internet publishing and news. For a great number of Facebook employees, web publishing is either one more advertising opportunity or a minor engineering problem — a source of slow-loading links that must be optimized. Facebook’s priorities were “aligned” with Zynga, too.

ᴄᴏɴᴛᴇɴᴛ ᴡᴀʀs is an occasional column intended to keep a majority of ᴄᴏɴᴛᴇɴᴛ coverage in one easily avoidable place.