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Feb. 4, 2019, 1:30 p.m.

Happy birthday, Facebook! These are the 10 most important moments in your not-so-great relationship with the news industry

Why only 10 on its 15th birthday? Recently, we discovered an error in our internal metrics that may have overstated the number of items on this list. We are very sorry for anyone affected; we take any mistake seriously.

Facebook turns 15 today, and it wouldn’t be wrong to describe this as its awkward phase. Its limbs have grown unexpectedly quickly, and it’s a bit clumsy walking down the hall, all gangly angles and elbows. Its relationships with others at times seem governed less by reason than by something deeply adolescent. It gets into yelling matches with Dad, or else just sits sullen when it’s caught doing something it shouldn’t.

Because it has become, alongside Google, the largest director of human attention in our species’ history, Facebook has impacted pretty much everything in one way or another in the past sesquidecade. But few have felt its force more than the news industry, which has tried at various times to steer into and against its gale-force winds — on net, to little success. So with Facebook celebrating a big day today, I thought it might be useful to look back at the 15 most important dates in Facebook’s history for news publishers (and those who love them).

September 5, 2006: Facebook launches News Feed.

It may be hard to remember, but the all-consuming stream of updates wasn’t part of Facebook at the beginning. That didn’t arrive until more than two years after launch, with this note from product manager Ruchi Sanghvi:

News Feed highlights what’s happening in your social circles on Facebook. It updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again. Now, whenever you log in, you’ll get the latest headlines generated by the activity of your friends and social groups.

(That whole “we’ll help you stalk that girl” vibe is thankfully something you don’t see in Facebook’s messaging today.)

Also from the announcement:

News Feed and Mini-Feed are a different way of looking at the news about your friends, but they do not give out any information that wasn’t already visible. Your privacy settings remain the same — the people who couldn’t see your info before still can’t see it now.

Indeed, this was the first major moment where users had to face the reality that once they add information to this giant database in the sky, they give up at least some control over what happens to it next. Going from “I thought this was only for the small group of people who visit my profile” to “OMG now I’m getting poked by that creep in Econ who knows I’m single again” was in some ways Facebook’s privacy reckoning. And indeed, users hated it, Mark Zuckerberg responded in the most condescending way possible (“Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.”), and people moved on.

For publishers who were paying attention at the time — not many were — it showed that Facebook understood the power of remixing the small bits of content its users gave it into a larger experience, something that could eventually be a platform for content sharing. It also showed them that “News” doesn’t always mean “news.”

April 9, 2012: Facebook buys Instagram for $1 billion.

Has a price ever seemed so ridiculously high at the time — and so ridiculously low a few years later? All credit to Zuckerberg: He saw the shift to visual sharing coming, he saw a platform that understood mobile, and he wasn’t afraid to strike.

This was Facebook’s first major acquisition, but of course it wasn’t its last, with WhatsApp and Oculus the most prominent to follow. The Instagram buy showed publishers that when a new platform comes along that looks interesting, Facebook was happy to buy its way in. You were going to be dealing with Menlo Park no matter what. (It also showed Facebook that antitrust regulators, who in another era might have looked askance at this sort of expansion of market power, were enjoying a nice decade-long nap.)

June 23, 2014: Facebook puts its thumb on the scale for video.

Facebook rejects that wording and has maintained that the increasing prominence of video in News Feed was an organic response to user desire. But this was the day Facebook announced that if it thinks you like video, it’s going to give you more of it. And more of it. And more of it. The full blossoming of the 30-second, captions-on-screen, quick-clip social video can be traced back to this day. Here begineth the pivot.

It would be a little over two years later that Facebook acknowledged that it had been miscalculating how much people were watching video in the first place — exaggerating users’ desire for and consumption of video to publishers and advertisers alike.

May 12, 2015: Facebook introduces Instant Articles.

I think this day could be described as Peak Facebook when it comes to the publishing industry. (Not Peak Facebook overall, of course — that’s likely still to come.) Facebook Instant Articles was at the same time a not-subtle dig on how terrible many news sites were on phones, a pure expression of the power of Facebook’s ad-targeting capabilities, and a moment that, on another timeline, might have been the beginning of the end of the web as we know it.

By saying news orgs should publish their stories directly inside Facebook — not just on the web — Instant Articles kicked off the meat of distributed publishing’s bell curve: Google AMP and Apple News. (Snapchat Discover had launched a few months earlier.) With VR and especially voice, we still see the allure and risk of such a platform-driven strategy. In the end, most publishers decided Instant Articles wasn’t worth the bother or the rev share and moved back to the web.

December 3, 2015: Facebook Live debuts for regular users.

If Facebook said you were going to do live video, then damn it, you were going to do live video! As publishers adjusted to the outsized power of the News Feed algorithm in their traffic stats, many were willing to do whatever it took, even turning the most uncharismatic print reporters into videographers and TV reporters. Facebook, a little bit spooked by Snapchat, knew that it needed a way to capture a more raw form of expression than their increasingly polished profiles could summon, and they thought Live was part of the answer.

For publishers, it was a source of both strategic confusion and money, as Facebook paid news organizations (and others) millions of dollars in return for hitting a quota of Facebook Live videos each day or week. With digital advertising in the dumps, many publishers were happy to take the cash, as they would be later with Facebook Watch. Neither ended very well.

May 9, 2016: Gizmodo alleges Facebook routinely suppresses conservative news.

Ah, the Gizmodo story. You can debate how legitimate the story’s thin sourcing was was — I certainly have — but either way, the outcome was a Facebook that felt it needed to shore up its right flank. Conservative publishers and activists complained that Facebook was part of a liberal conspiracy to suppress the truth. The company held an emergency summit with Glenn Beck, Erick Erickson, and others. It tried to convince Congress. It changed how Trending Topics worked. It turned the jobs of human over to algorithms. It even eventually kills Trending Topics altogether.

This story was the real launching point for a broader conservative argument that tech platforms are the enemy; it’s how you end up with members of Congress complaining Google blocked his search for “Jesus,” blaming Facebook for a drop in traffic at a conspiracy website, and asking whether not Taylor Swift had been the victim of hate speech by a GQ writer.

September 8, 2016: Facebook decides a Pulitzer-winning photograph is child porn.

This was a moment when many people realized that somehow, when they weren’t looking, Facebook had been appointed editor-in-chief of global discourse. The backstory: A Norwegian author had posted to his Facebook page the famous Nick Ut photo of a Vietnamese girl, naked and panicked, fleeing napalm. You’ve seen it. Facebook’s content moderators declared it child pornography and banned the author from posting again. Norway’s largest newspaper wrote a story about it, and that was taken down because it used the photo. Facebook even blocked Norway’s prime minister from posting it.

Facebook changed its mind a day later. But the “napalm girl” incident drove home both the capriciousness and the ultimate dominion of Facebook’s decision making. A few low-wage content moderators in the Philippines could determine whether a newspaper got to share a story or not.

November 8, 2016: Donald Trump is elected president of the United States.

To be clear, I’m not saying Facebook (or things that happened on its platform) swung the election. What I am saying is that Facebook’s position in the world did a 180 once the outcome was clear. Whatever one thinks of Trump, he is a very unusual president, and the post-election searching for factors that might be behind that unusual outcome put the spotlight squarely on Facebook. One recent analysis illustrated just how negative stories about Facebook turned in The New York Times right around the election. (Justifiably so, I’d argue.) Only the Cambridge Analytica revelations in 2018 would match it as a driver of negative coverage.

All the talk around “fake news” and “information warfare” and “filter bubbles” put Facebook on the defensive — in some cases unfairly, but in most not. (The Facebook Journalism Project launched shortly thereafter, no accident.) And as perceptions of Facebook shifted from “place where Grandma posts memes” to “place that just may have played a supporting but not insignificant role in the foreign subversion of American democracy,” publishers started to feel a bit better about moving away from it as the be-all and end-all of audience development strategy.

March 21, 2017: Facebook begins flagging false stories as “disputed.”

This was the first significant effort by Facebook to save its own users from sharing nonsense. It was also a key moment in Facebook’s partnership with fact-checking outfits like PolitiFact, the AP, and Snopes, under the banner of the International Fact-Checking Network. If two separate organizations Facebook was working with had declared a story false, Facebook would label it as “disputed by multiple, independent fact-checkers.”

This system didn’t work very well, and Facebook moved away from it within months. But what hasn’t changed much is Facebook’s outsourcing of this sort of work to news organizations — which protects Facebook from bias claims, but also shovels a lot of busy work onto publishers. (Just last week, one of them said they’d had enough.)

January 11, 2018: Facebook says there’s too much news showing up on Facebook.

Oh, I’m sorry — I meant Facebook wants to be “bringing people closer together,” complete with a stock-photo hug.

Facebook had made a number of moves over the years to decrease the amount of publisher content on News Feed. (First they came for the clickbait, and I said nothing.) But it was the January 2018 announcement that most like a divorce filing. Zuckerberg went so far as to claim that it was publishers’ fault people felt bad when they used Facebook:

The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.

(“Passively reading articles” is also known as “reading articles.”)

The shift meant more posts from friends and family, fewer from publishers. And for publishers to break through, their content had to “encourage meaningful interactions between people.” God forbid news just be news — you gotta thumb it up now.

Publishers, which in many cases had already seen Facebook traffic declining for some time, saw more of the same. Facebook, which had been neck and neck with Google for sending the most traffic to publishers, fell off the map.

On one hand, no one likes losing audience. But on the other, this might have been the kick in the pants some publishers needed to think about what a sustainable news organization post-Facebook might look like.

Illustration by Paul Chung used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 4, 2019, 1:30 p.m.
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