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Oct. 3, 2011, 1 p.m.

Like them or not, the latest changes to Facebook offer big ideas for news orgs

Facebook’s controversial new updates offer news outlets an opportunity: to bring the lessons of Facebook to their own platforms.

If your Facebook feed is like mine, it has been full of complaints recently over the latest changes Facebook has made to its interface. People don’t like the Twitteresque status-update feeds. They don’t think Facebook should decide what “stories” are likely to be popular. They don’t understand the new friend groups, unless they are also on Google Plus and love its “circles.” In general, it seems that many people want to go back to the old way (which many hated when it first came out, too).

The roots of the arguments against the changes range: from concerns that the alterations value advertisers over users to fears that “frictionless sharing” violates user privacy to more general anxieties about Facebook getting into the “news business” in the first place. But the point of this post is not to debate whether the recent Facebook changes are good or bad. It’s instead to point out: Like them or hate them, there is much that news organizations can learn from the Facebook changes.

A fluid definition of news

The first lesson from the “new” Facebook: News is everything and anything that people want to know. Journalists typically define news using words like “proximity,” “impact,” “timeliness,” and “conflict.” Scholars define an event as newsworthy according to how socially significant and deviant — or different from the normal state of things — it is. Facebook, on the other hand, defines news much more simply. On Facebook, news is simply what people share. So the fact that, at 7 a.m., I was out of coffee is news. So is a Washington Post story I shared hours later about how updates on Twitter can reveal people’s moods.

I’m certainly not suggesting that news organizations should start publishing every little thought that comes into readers’ minds and calling it news, or that they should start lowering their news-judgment standards in a futile attempt to woo readers. What I am asserting, though, is: News might be news even if editors don’t consider it to be so.

As Facebook does, make the act of sharing part of the news.

Many of today’s professional journalists were forged in the crucible of the journalism school — and even those who weren’t work in a culture defined by J-school’s shared values and assumptions. So one journalist knows what another one means when she says, “That’s just not a page-one story.” But the general, non-journalist public may have a very different idea of what’s news. It may not fit into the local, state, national, business, and features categories that organize most newspapers — categories that have carried over to far too many news websites. News organizations’ cohesive worldview, in other words, simply may not jibe with the way most of the organizations’ readers see the world.

The fluidity of the definition of news, it’s worth remembering, did not begin with Facebook. In the early days of newspapers, snippets of information such as shipping schedules were big news in some communities, not because they were particularly interesting, but because they were necessary to life at that time. All Facebook has done is update that idea and take advantage of it online. The lesson: What readers want to know may not fit the traditional categories that news organizations have used to define news, but it may have value nonetheless.

News is social

What really works on Facebook (and, I’d argue, works even better since the most recent changes) is that users can see who is sharing what. In. Real. Time. The picture or news story I share on Facebook isn’t just the news. The act of sharing is part of the news, too. It’s difficult to separate the content from the fact that the content is social.

I share a story; friends comment on that story. Some share it on their own Facebook walls, as well. That brings more comments or likes from different people. All of this becomes part of the news.

Again, Facebook didn’t create the idea of social news; it simply created a defined space for it online. When I was an newbie journalist, an editor passed down this sage advice: “You want to write a story so a reader spits out his coffee and says, ‘Martha, you’ve got to read this.'” That’s essentially what’s happening when you tweet a link to a news story on Twitter, or share a link to an article on Facebook. “Look, read this. It’s good. (Or it’s awful.)”

Facebook capitalized on this idea with its latest changes. The right-hand feed tells Facebookers immediately who is sharing what, who is liking what, who is commenting on what. While we could always discover that information with some digging, what’s new is the immediacy: Facebook is treating the acts of commenting, liking, and sharing as news in its own right, rather than as mere mechanisms for spreading the news.

Adding social features to a news website does nothing if no one but the person who coded them knows, or cares, that they are there.

Again, Facebook isn’t the first to do that. Long before its latest changes, news websites have been offering ways to share stories and highlight who shared what. (The New York Times does this well with its most-emailed section, which is one of the first spots I hit on the homepage.) But news outlets should use such features more often, and more dynamically. Instead of highlighting the “most commented on” story (which is all too often a measure of a story’s sensationalism more than than its overall worth), highlight the “most shared.” Provide an immediate feed of who’s sharing what, and what they’re saying. In other words, as Facebook does, make the act of sharing part of the news.

Of course, sharing of the kind that Facebook is adopting carries significant privacy concerns. But if news organizations offer a clear, easy-to-execute opt-out function, particularly on a story-by-story basis (“Do you want the fact that you shared this to be shared?”), that alleviates most of the concerns. Privacy is always a trade-off. And transparent sharing can add a lot of value to the news experience — for the consumer and the producer alike.

Don’t be subtle

A another lesson news organizations can learn from Facebook: Go big or go home. Facebook changes its format pretty frequently, and the changes are always bold enough that its users notice. They complain. Facebook tweaks the changes. Everyone forgets why they were mad in the first place (until the next set of changes launches).

Another way to look at that: Facebook changes are striking enough to cause a fuss. Even if that fuss is negative in its tone, there are benefits to having millions of people talking about your product.

Compare that to the social aspects of many news websites. First of all, do people know they exist? To they cause people to act? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then that’s a problem. Adding social features to a news website does nothing if no one but the person who coded them knows, or cares, that they are there.

News organizations are certainly facing a fragile environment, and the last thing they want to do is annoy their readers. Then again, though, news organizations do things that annoy their readers all the time, from raising subscription prices to laying off customer service reps in favor of automated phone response systems that could leave even the most Zen-like among us crazed. It might be worth the gamble, then, to update the social aspects of their sites in a bold and meaningful way, even if it temporarily draws some ire. When journalists are immersed in a newsroom culture, they often seem to think that even the slightest change in their product will get noticed. But walk out of the newsroom, and it becomes clear that the average reader isn’t studying the product anywhere as closely as the journalists themselves.

I’m certain that, sometime in the not-to-distance future, Facebook will yet again change its interface, and those alterations will prompt more outrage. In the meantime, though, Facebook’s changes offer news outlets an opportunity: not just to distribute their work on Facebook, but, even more importantly, to bring the lessons of Facebook to their own platforms.

POSTED     Oct. 3, 2011, 1 p.m.
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