Data Sheet—Facebook and Journalism Go Their Separate Ways
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Facebook was one of the pioneers of the Silicon Valley concept of “growth hacking.” Early in its existence it recognized that while all businesses focused on metrics, many focused on the wrong ones, most often ignoring the metrics that lead to a company’s growth. As an example, focusing on sales might seem like the right thing to do. For Facebook, focusing on “likes” or time spent on its sites by users and so on would lead to sales (and profits) and therefore were a better metric than simply trying to sell more ads.
The news industry has been famously clueless about the right metrics for its business. It focused on eyeballs or page views and then unique visitors, not even being able to agree on accurate measurements for the last of these. As part of this hunt for users, one of the metrics publishers chased was the number of times text stories and videos were viewed on Facebook. Never mind that Facebook took the vast majority of revenue from these views and also controlled relationships with advertisers. Foolish publishers poured precious resources into promoting their product on Facebook, where the money was never very good (except for Facebook) and grew progressively worse.
That game is up. Facebook is pushing a new metric now: “meaningful social interactions.” What exactly that means will be up to Facebook, as usual, to define. What it won’t be is professionally promoted material, whether from publishers or others. Facebook is probably glad to be rid of the responsibility of pretending to care about publishers, a needy and complaining lot whose mission didn’t truly overlap with Facebook’s. (Audrey Cooper, editor in chief of The San Francisco Chronicle, neatly summarizes the news industry’s frustration here.)
Journalists want to inform, tell stories, and even entertain. Facebook wants to connect people who know each other. These just aren’t the same activities, and while there’s some overlap they never will be.
Some of my holiday weekend reading:
* James Stewart, one of America’s finest business journalists and longform storytellers, reminds us of his vast range in this sorrowful, spare, and ultimately inspiring yarn in The New Yorker about Eric Sun, a Facebook engineer and violinist who died far too young.
* Though I enjoyed my brief stay at the too-big, too-chaotic, too-yucky CES show in Las Vegas last week, I enjoyed Farhad Manjoo’s none-too-subtle takedown-cum-review of the event he didn’t attend: “CES Is Back, and It’s … Meh.”
* If you’re as fascinated by modern China as I am, read this weird, scattered, fascinating, barely coherent account of the improbable Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.
* Lastly, I heartily recommend this fine example of magazine making, the Times magazine’s gorgeously produced photo-essay about a very old technology: pencils.
Peanut butter in my chocolate. Speaking of Facebook, the social network's continued rise as a cultural and economic force is creating more competitors. COO Sheryl Sandberg is stepping down from Walt Disney's board of directors, as is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, because "it has become increasingly difficult for them to avoid conflicts relating to board matters," the company said.
Twizzlers. The EMV chip inside credit cards generates a unique code for every transaction to enhance security. Now the major credit card issuers are preparing to admit the obvious to improve security further. Visa last week finally joined American Express, Discover, and Mastercard in agreeing to phase out signatures for cards with chips.
Sour patch kids. The price of bitcoin and other digital currencies plunged 15% or more on Tuesday, as China was rumored to be planning further moves to crackdown on the market. After banning digital currency exchanges last year, the government will block online access to alternative trading platforms, Bloomberg reported. Meanwhile, secure messaging app Telegram is prepping the largest initial coin offering ever: $1.2 billion, in two phases, according to TechCrunch.
Peeps. IBM and Danish shipping giant Maersk are teaming up to form a new company that will use the blockchain technology behind bitcoin to help shippers, ports, customs offices, banks, and others in the global supply chain track freight and replace related paperwork with tamper-resistant digital records.
Nerds. Researchers in artificial intelligence have turned their attention to reading comprehension tests. Both Microsoft and Baidu say they have created AI programs that can score as well as the average human on the Stanford Question Answering Dataset test, also known as Squad.
Starburst. SoftBank Group is looking at spinning off part of its profitable telecommunications business in a public offering to raise $18 billion. The conglomerate run by Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son would retain a majority-ownership stake in the telecom unit.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
They call it the gig economy. It refers, of course, to the workers who aren't employees but perform all sort of tasks for app-based companies, from driving for Uber to delivering for Postmates. Writer Sam Riches spent six months delivering via bicycle and offers a take on what he experienced in The Walrus. It wasn't always pretty.
The afternoon of my second day, I get an order for crepes. It’s surprising how many people order crepes. Half of the orders I get are for crepes. The address is somewhere I haven’t delivered to yet. Forest Hill. The rich neighbourhood. I bike uphill, the homes growing larger and progressively gaudier as the elevation climbs. I circle the streets, looking at the mansions that fill city blocks, then I find the address. A lady cradling a tiny dog, her face covered in ointment, a bathrobe on, opens the door just enough to stick her arm through. She snatches her crepe and bangs the door shut. I hear the lock click. “You’re welcome,” I say to the door.
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BEFORE YOU GO
After President Trump's boast to a reporter that he was "the least racist person you have ever interviewed," some reporters at The Atlantic decided to make an actual list of the least racist people they'd ever interviewed.