Facebook app poses a dilemma 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. Such a change would undoubtedly be good for Facebook’s business. It is growing into a kind of parallel internet, especially with services such as Instagram and WhatsApp that barely live on the old-fashioned web at all. The more Facebook can keep its users in its own universe, the more it will be able to sell them, in ever more finely sliced tranches, to advertisers.

‘Facebook controls everything’
The change may be good for Facebook’s users, too. If you’re visiting its site on a computer, external links tend to work fine. But as the world migrates to phones, links become ever crappier things. Within its own app, Facebook controls everything. The words, images, videos, scrolling, commenting and navigation­ – the whole user interface – are all carefully optimised to create a fulfilling and immersive interactive experience. And then, the minute you click on a link and visit another website, all bets are off. Maybe you’ll find a great, fast-loading, responsive site. But probably you won’t. More likely you’ll get annoyed by ads that you can’t make go away, or by pages that load everything except the one thing you’re trying to read, or by any of the myriad other flaws of the mobile web.

As the world moves from desktops to phones, publishers would love to force everyone to use their apps: the app experience is invariably better than the mobile web experience. But we all visit far too many sites for that to be realistic. The result is publishers have had to make do with the mobile web – until now. If you can’t get your readers to use your app, Facebook is saying, why not use ours? It’s a beautiful thing n and it comes with hundreds of millions of regular users built in. For a publisher that prefers reach over traffic, this is arguably positive. If you’re a company like Vice or BuzzFeed, and your main product is to sell brands on your ability to reach a certain audience, then you’ll probably be perfectly happy to go to where your audience is. 

If that’s Facebook’s mobile app, then so be it. Video creators, too, are likely to be reasonably happy. They want their content to be embedded in other companies’ apps ­– the more the better. But for most publishers, this is unambiguously bad news. For publishers who believe in the bundle or the open web; who want control over the look and feel of how their content is produced; even publishers who make their money by selling ads on their sites n these companies, which make up the vast majority of the media economy, are quaking. As they should. Because their audience is moving to a land where they have almost no control.

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