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Just ten years ago, the most powerful and respected news brands in the world included the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN. But that was before the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. It’s now possible to make the argument that these social platforms – and not the legendary news organizations of a decade ago – now own the news consumer.
Facebook is the new home page of the Internet
It’s now more likely that a person gets his or her news from Facebook than from the home page of the New York Times. And the mainstream media organizations recognize that fact. They are embracing the technological infrastructure of social media companies to get closer to the consumer and get wider distribution for their articles.
Take, for example, what’s happening with Facebook. It’s now the case that Facebook controls the distribution platform, not the news organizations. And Facebook has launched innovation after innovation – such as Instant Articles – that actually encourage news organizations to publish to Facebook directly.
That means consumers are actually more loyal to the social media platforms than to the news publishers. If you’re not sure of this, just ask yourself: Which of these two can you live without for one day – Facebook or the New York Times?
News organizations take the bait
At a time when advertising revenue is down, subscriptions are down, and faith in the media is at an all-time low – news organizations increasingly view Facebook – heck, even Snapchat – as potential saviors. They are distributing more and more of the content to third-party platforms, hoping for more traffic, more eyeballs and more advertising dollars. By one estimate, CNN now publishes 2000 different pieces of content to third-party social media platforms each week.
But at what cost to the news organizations? They have been put into an awkward position where they are creating the type of news that the social networks demand, rather than the type of news that serves as some kind of public good.
Facebook Live shows how social media companies are in control
That’s especially true in the case of Facebook Live, where Facebook was willing to provide generous financial incentives to media organizations to create live video content. It turns out, however, that the most successful live “news” broadcast of the year was BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon (a truly epic moment in live news, when a team of editors tried to get a watermelon to explode by putting nearly 700 rubber bands on it). 800,000 people tuned in to see a news team blow up a watermelon!
Thus, companies like Facebook and Snapchat are no longer just technology companies – they are also publishers and distributors. They own the consumer, and they know exactly what the consumer wants. At least from the perspective of old-time journalists, that has led to a distortion of the news cycle. It’s now all about traffic, about likes and about going viral.
The fake news phenomenon
It led, for example, to the whole “Fake News” scandal that surfaced during the presidential election. People on the Internet want cute LOL cats. And if they can’t get them, they want the next best thing – outrageously scandalous and untrue conspiracy theories that confirm all of their inner biases and assumptions. And so we’re at a point where the “trending” news items for the week might be fake, and we really don’t know because we’ve handed over so much power to the almighty Facebook algorithm.
So the next time you hear about social media companies “helping” publishers to tell their story better or more creatively, take a deep breath. They may be helping publishers, yes, but they’re also helping themselves. They own the consumer now, and they’re not going to let go without a fight.