Facebook looks to host news content, without ‘devouring the Internet’

March 24, 2015, 2:16 PM UTC

In the coming months, Facebook (FB) will begin a test run of hosting content from news organizations including the New York Times, BuzzFeed and National Geographic within its site, the New York Times reports. This would be a change from the current way articles spread across Facebook: via links to the news organizations’ own websites.

This strategy was first reported on last October, when David Carr of the New York Times wrote that Facebook went on a “listening tour” with publishers to discuss hosting their content and sharing advertising revenue. Carr compared Facebook’s relationship with publishers to “that big dog galloping toward you in the park.” The idea being, you don’t know whether to welcome it or fear it. The benefits of such an arrangement include faster loading times for publishers, and getting their content to users faster. But Carr noted that many publishers are wary of giving Facebook the level of control over their brand and advertising dollars that hosting their stories on the site would entail.

Speaking at the Code/Media conference in Laguna Niguel in February, Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox moved to assuage those fears, saying, “We don’t want to try and devour and suck in the Internet.”
Cox was pressed to discuss the sometimes scary amount of power that Facebook, with 1.4 billion monthly active users, wields over publishers and app makers. Every time Facebook changes the algorithm of its News Feed, it sends a ripple effect over the media landscape. From the outside, it appears that Facebook has the power to elevate publishers and app makers that it likes, and destroy the ones it doesn’t.

But Cox insisted that any change Facebook makes to its algorithm is dictated by user data, not by executives. Facebook is so obsessed with figuring out what users like and don’t like that the company hired a team of people in Knoxville to use Facebook all day, while a team studies their actions.

As Cox spoke, murmurs of dissent bubbled up. “Tell that to the social news apps,” someone grumbled.

In 2012, Facebook de-emphasized social reader apps from the Washington Post and the Guardian, which were admittedly clunky and spammy. The publications pulled the apps. Likewise, Facebook de-emphasized notifications from Zynga (ZNGA), which sent the company scrambling to move its users to mobile. Most recently, Facebook declared war on click-bait headlines, which it defines as any link with a headline “that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.” This change has been attributed to major declines in traffic at fast-growing sites like Upworthy. Facebook did the same thing with apps that automatically shared passive activities like music listening or workouts.

Facebook isn’t the first company to wield distribution power over publishers. In the early days of the Web, Yahoo (YHOO) and AOL (AOL) controlled the Web’s traffic, and publishers optimized their content to be picked up on their homepages. Then Google (GOOG) became the primary way people navigated the Web, and publishers poured resources into search engine optimization. Now, social media dominates the Web, and Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla. Publishers must to decide if they’re willing to hand Facebook that kind of control.

More details of the plan to host media content may be revealed at Facebook’s developer conference, F8, this Thursday.

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