Why Facebook's new algorithm is bad news for media

Vanity Fair


Earlier this year, Facebook began looking for ways to reverse an insidious issue with its platform: while users’ feeds were filled with news stories, people had begun to share less about their own lives. A lack of original user-generated content could eventually lead to the erosion of activity on Facebook, which is something of an existential problem for a social network. Naturally, this makes Mark Zuckerberg nervous—the less people share on Facebook, the more likely they are to migrate their personal lives onto private platforms like Evan Spiegel’s Snapchat.

In a possible attempt to stop the decline, Facebook announced Wednesdaythat it would be tweaking the algorithm behind its News Feed. “Our success is built on getting people the stories that matter to them most,” Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president of product management, said in a post accompanying Wednesday’s news.“If you could look through thousands of stories every day and choose the 10 that were most important to you, which would they be? The answer should be your News Feed. It is subjective, personal, and unique—and defines the spirit of what we hope to achieve.” You will, in other words, see see more posts from your friends and family, while publishers get the shaft.

For users, this is ostensibly good news. For digital media, however, it’s a something of a nightmare come to life. For the past several years, Facebook has been vital to publishers’ ability to reach a global audience. Many publishers—including Vanity Fair—rely on Facebook for a large portion of their traffic, which in turn drives advertising revenue. Last year, when Facebook announced for the first time it would be fixing the News Feed to show people more posts from people they actually know, media companies felt the effect. The Huffington Post, for example, saw a 60 percent decline in its Facebook referrals from the beginning of 2015 to November 2015, while BuzzFeed's Facebook referrals fell by more than 40 percent. An estimate from analytics company Parse.ly last August shows that Facebook drives more traffic for media companies than Google.

So any time Zuckerberg signs off on some change to his company’s secret sauce, digital journalists take notice. Last year, when a Facebook exec said that the News Feed would eventually become a video feed, publishers rushed to hire teams of video producers to create video content to feed the beast. At this point, there’s no question that Facebook exerts control over publishers. Wednesday’s announcement shows just how fragile the entire industry is in Facebook’s hands.