We’re moving into the formative stage of “platform publishing,” and I predict it’s not going to end well for magazine media.
Just two weeks ago, Vox Media became one of the first companies I know of to announce the launch of a media site primarily on Facebook.
It won’t be the last. Maybe in a few years, the idea of having an independent mobile web presence will seem obsolete. It seems crazy—and it’s certainly not how people look at their businesses now, but that’s how fast the world is changing.
There’s been debate for a while about Facebook Instant Articles, a set of tools created by Facebook intended to make it easier to publish content on Facebook. Publishers get the advantage of faster responses, plus native multimedia, and less abandonment. And they get to sell advertising directly against the content they post. (So does Facebook).
The debate is predictable. On the one hand, publishers say, they need to go where the audience is—social media. It’s a no-brainer, they say. ‘If I can create a vibrant community on social media—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, you name it—that can only be good for my brand. More traffic to my site, more subscriptions, more event registrations, more sales of ancillary products, and more social shares—which grows my audience even more, and increases all of the good things I just mentioned.’
That’s the one side of the debate. We all get it. We’ve all hired social-media specialists in the last few years to engage with the hundreds of millions of people who flock to social media platforms.
The other side of the debate is that Facebook, probably the world’s smartest data-science company, gets an unequal share of the value when publishers use it as a platform. Facebook (and Google) have already transformed advertising. Those two companies are much smarter about contextualizing advertising—Google based on search, and Facebook based on the vast amounts of personal data users voluntarily share about themselves.
Instant Articles might make engagement easier for publishers and their audiences on Facebook, this side of the argument goes, but what it’s really doing is training content consumers to use social media for news, not the websites of the actual producers of that content. It’s converting Facebook into a media company, only one with no content-creation costs. There’s no need to hire editors, writers, photographers and the like. Publishers do it for Facebook, thank you. All the while, Facebook is learning, adding to its data, getting smarter about its users (your readers), which allows it to sell advertising to those people in new and more intuitive ways.
Facebook is playing chess, while publishers are playing checkers. There’s a reason why Facebook grew from less than $300 million in revenue in 2008 to nearly $18 billion in 2015.
Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith told The Guardian last week that the legacy media industry is “feeding on the scraps” of Facebook’s mammoth ad business while serving as the main driver of content and engagement on that network.
Think that’s not exactly true? Think Facebook and all social media are by nature ephemeral, and, like MySpace, must inevitably decline? Think again. Wait, you say: Data shows that people are on to Facebook’s tricks. They’re aware of the dangers of a public social-media profile, of too much sharing. They’re much less likely to post personal information about themselves. We know this anecdotally and from a variety of reports on the subject.
Facebook in 2016 is less of a place where people post pictures from their vacations, and of their grandkids. It’s certainly no longer a place where you get “pokes” from old friends from high school. So, as Will Oremus asks in Slate, what’s the point of a social network where everyone’s afraid to socialize?
But Facebook knows this too, and has already begun to transition. It’s now more a source of news and information, grafted onto a platform that’s ideal for that purpose. That’s the way I use it myself. One advantage is that I get connected to content shared by people I like and respect. It’s less random and more contextualized.
So if Facebook is transitioning to a content company—“quality” content in the feed has long been rewarded in the algorithm, and live video is a new priority—what does that mean for content producers? Well, yes, the audience is there, and that audience needs to be engaged. But is the loss of direct contact with the audience, the ceding of ad dollars, and the movement away from individual websites except for referrals really a good thing when considered in the long-term, secular sense? I say no.