The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

“For those who see the relationship between platforms and publishers as a zero-sum game, having a platform like Facebook or YouTube stepping away from news might seem like a win.”

I fear 2018 will be the year we will see a major platform decide that news is simply not worth the trouble and move to (1) reduce the role of news and systematically separate it from other content and (2) reduce the number of news organizations allowed to publish to the platform, strictly controlling who has the opportunity.

We can call this the “Snapchat scenario,” as that is basically how news works on Snapchat. Some platforms in mainland China, Japan, and South Korea also control news distribution tightly and are only open to preapproved select partners.

Relatively open platforms like Facebook or YouTube could choose to adopt this model, for any mix of three possible reasons rooted in politics, users, or advertising—

  • News and news-related content is at the heart of much of the political and public scrutiny faced by platform companies in Europe, the U.S., and beyond. Having a lot less of it, more clearly separated from other content, and more strictly controlled, might be seen as a way to reduce that pressure.
  • News and news-related content is clearly a part of the wide variety of things that platforms offer, but it is not clear how important it is to users. Surveys suggest that only 1/3 of YouTube users say they get news on the platform, and while that figure is 2/3 for Facebook users, a majority of those who get news on Facebook say they see news incidentally, while using the platform for other, for them more important, purposes.
  • News and news-related content is a small part of most forms of media use, especially digital media use, and not all forms of news and news-related content are seen as particularly attractive or even brand-safe by advertisers, especially in polarized political environments.

For those who see the relationship between platforms and publishers as a zero-sum game, having a platform like Facebook or YouTube stepping away from news might seem like a win.

It would almost certainly be a win for the “platform darlings” who would be allowed to continue to publish to the platform. (Past experience suggests these select partners would be (a) few, (b) primarily English-language brands with international reach, and (c) mostly but not exclusively up-market.)

But what would it be like for the literally tens of thousands of publishers all over the world who are not “platform darlings” and do not have the scale or exclusivity to be attractive partners? The large drops in referrals to publishers when Facebook experimented with a Snapchat-like separation between private posts from individuals and public posts from pages in a number of countries in the fall of 2017 suggest not.

The reason the Snapchat scenario worries me is that — while it is clear that major platforms like Facebook and YouTube have been misused to spread disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech, both by for-profit actors and political actors, and have to confront serious issues concerning the quality, intelligibility, and algorithmic filtering of content — they also have some very real positive implications that might well be imperiled if news content was much more restricted. They include:

  • The demonstrably positive effects of the largest platforms in terms of exposing people to more sources of news and more diverse sources of news than they would otherwise see (especially for young people and those least interested in news).
  • The demonstrably (if moderate) positive effects that largest platforms have in terms of facilitating some forms of political engagement (especially for young people and those least interested in politics).
  • The way in which they have enabled some political movements — whether progressive or conservative, moderate or radical — to reach millions of people online. In October, Facebook said that more than 45 percent of people in the U.S. are friends with someone who has posted a “me too” status.

It is clear that large platforms like Facebook and YouTube have system-wide implications in terms of their dominant role in drawing attention, collecting data, and attracting advertising, and that, by enabling lots of different actors and activities, they have also become platforms for many troubling things and have sometimes failed to check these.

But these relatively permissive and often rambunctious environments also have demonstrably positive implications for our democracies. It is not inherently wrong that Snapchat and some other platforms take a far more restrictive approach to news. But do we want the biggest platforms to do the same?

Most platforms would want to continue to let their users “organically” share things they are interested in. But the example of Snapchat — and many increasingly popular messaging apps — suggest they can simultaneously decide to design their products in ways that limit both the role of news overall and news organizations’ ability to freely publish to the platform.

This is the Snapchat-scenario future we may face, but in my view not one we should aspire to. A central challenge going forward is how the positive effects outlined can be retained while also confronting some of the very real problems associated with the rise of platforms. How do we, as societies, deal with this? Paraphrasing James Madison’s stance on the rambunctious and often wildly inaccurate and partisan press of the early American republic, we might say that some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of open platforms. I hope efforts to combat such abuse won’t involve systematically reducing and restricting the role of news.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Paul Ford   Go global

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Jake Levine   The return to now

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Errin Haines Whack   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Burt Herman   Things get real

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse