Without paywalls, the media accepts serfdom in the kingdoms of Facebook and Google


Facebook has packed up the media’s clothes, guitar and complete set of Bob Dylan albums and left it in the porch in the pouring rain.

When Facebook first tried to entice media organisations to publish “Instant Articles” directly on to its platform, rather than post links to their own sites, the late New York Times reporter David Carr had a stark warning. “Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns,” he wrote in October 2014.

Nonetheless, many publishers took the deal, telling themselves that they were going into this marriage with their eyes open. They would provide the content; Facebook would provide the eyeballs. They would get the huge traffic boosts available by being shoved into the newsfeeds of hundreds of millions of people (Facebook hit one billion users in August 2015, and two billion in June 2017) and the social network would give its users more reasons to stay in its walled garden, where it could hoover up valuable personal and browsing data. All this would be funded by advertisers, who would give both parties handsome amounts of cash.

If this was a marriage, it was one of those bad ones that ends in tabloid pictures of the wife in a big coat and red lipstick, trying to look demure outside the High Court. Newspapers very quickly realised that they had not only lost control of their distribution mechanism, but they were now competing with a sexier version of themselves. Their own websites relied on advertising revenue, but Facebook served fewer ads alongside their content (a better browsing experience) and had better data on its users. That mattered because advertising has always been about targeting a particular market: there’s no point trying to flog foie gras in the Guardian. But Facebook could slice up audiences with a precision that left the old media reeling. I remember posting about my engagement on Facebook and getting a solid six months of wedding dresses and weight loss supplements.

Journalists pride themselves on being hard-bitten cynics but the truth was that they had fallen in love. They were bowled over by their Facebook-boosted numbers – record uniques! page views raining from the sky! – and decided to kid themselves that this was a relationship that could last.

Things first went truly sour during the 2016 US presidential election, when blue-chip media organisations woke up to the fact they were competing with conspiracy theories and overt propaganda laundered through Facebook’s clean white and blue aesthetic to look just as classy as their own expensive journalism. This explains the sudden coolness that crept into the traditional media’s attitude to Facebook: call it the “sleeping in separate beds” phase.

Now, though, Facebook has packed up the media’s clothes, guitar and complete set of Bob Dylan albums and left it in the porch in the pouring rain. In December, it announced that it was changing its newsfeed to prioritise “meaningful interactions” between friends. Translated from passive-aggressive Californian, that means downgrading news content so that users …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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