Death by a thousand likes: How Facebook and Twitter are killing the open web

Liking an article isn’t the same thing as engaging with it.
Liking an article isn’t the same thing as engaging with it.
Image: AP Photo/Gus Ruelas
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Here’s one way to understand the symbiotic relationship between publications and platforms in the digital age. Publications depend on advertising dollars to keep producing content, so they need to hold readers’ attention. Big platforms like Facebook and Twitter already have plenty of attention, but they need vast quantities of content to fill up their newsfeeds. It seems natural, then, that publications have started relying on platforms to drive readership.

But there’s a hitch: This is a really depressing, dystopian way to think about publishers and platforms. It only really makes sense if you view writing as a fungible commodity and view the world exclusively through the lens of late-stage capitalism. The worst thing about Facebook—and Twitter and Snapchat and every other god in the pantheon of platforms—is that they probably do think about publishers this way. And that’s going to smother journalistic independence and the open web.

Platforms are eating publishers

A while ago, I wrote about adblockers and how they would save us all from a rising tide of clickbait. Not everyone agreed. Indeed, my take on adblocking is rosier than most.

A different, and more popular, take on adblockers is that they—along with web users’ seemingly inexorable shift to mobile—are going to drain publications’ ad revenues, which will in turn make publications even more beholden to platforms.

The buzzkills at The Awl have predictably smart, if dour, thoughts along these lines. In her piece, “Welcome to the Block Party,” Casey Johnston writes:

[A]s publications transition to becoming direct content providers for the social networks and platforms whose audiences they are currently borrowing, like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google, perhaps Apple News (or Medium??)‚ many of the ads will be the same as before—placed in front of, beside, and between content—but sold and provided by the platform, rather than the publisher. Ad-blocking, insofar as it contributes to the decimation of advertising revenues, will hasten this exodus to the platforms.

It’s true that platforms are awaiting publishers with open arms. They have developed an exciting and hyper-efficient way to deliver attention to publishers—eliminate the need for publishers to have websites at all!

Let’s go down the list of current platforms’ publishing offerings. Facebook’s Instant Articles exist entirely within Facebook-world, and provide, according to the marketer writing the Washington Post’s blog, “a lightning-fast user experience for reading, sharing and commenting within the Facebook iOS app.”

Apple has Apple News, which allows users access to the same news they can find elsewhere, but presents it in a way that’s ten times more beautiful. Google has Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). It’s kinda like Instant Articles, except spread across several platforms and open source. Twitter has Moments. And let’s not forget about Snapchat. Apparently, 21% of Buzzfeed’s video traffic is Snapchat traffic.

Note that these platforms are almost entirely mobile-only. These platforms are apps, not websites. Readers are on mobile platforms, and that’s where publishers should be, too—or so we’re told.

“Go where the readers are” is what publications whistle to themselves as they slink by the graveyard of their inflexible or unlucky brethren. “Go where the readers are” is what they whisper to themselves as they quiver before the mercurial platform gods, waiting to find out if they’ll be cherished or crushed. And it does make a certain amount of sense to go where the readers are, because that’s where all the attention is. But it will cost you.

The price of platforms

Does Facebook—or Apple News, or whichever other platform—really want to keep publishers around? Maybe publishers’ entire existence is little more than an inefficiency to be algorithm-ed away. This is what John Herrman at The Awl is ceaselessly warning us about.

The idea that Facebook and its ilk could act as information gatekeepers is also a bleak prospect. Note, for example, how Facebook wouldn’t allow The New Republic to create an ad for an innocuous piece on medical marijuana (Facebook later changed its mind—without explanation).  If Facebook is squeamish about medical marijuana now, imagine the state of the fourth estate once controversy-avoidant platforms take a more direct role in the production and distribution of news.

But the larger point is that the logic of efficiency on the internet will always favor scale—which is to say, platforms—over publishers. That means publishers will need to contort themselves to fit into platforms, not the other way around.

When publications become wire services for platforms, they get flattened out. They focus more and more precious institutional energy on reaching a platform’s audience rather than their own, and their voice changes. They stop paying attention to the needs and preferences of their loyal audiences to cater to their borrowed, disloyal, Facebook-driven one, and they lose intimacy and trust.

And that’s why so many articles kinda sound the same these days. As academic and author Fredrik deBoer writes, when you’re “another site publishing people writing about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports,” then you’re just “joining every other website that publishes about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports.”

Mostly, I get my news from Twitter. If I don’t look at the headline or the logo, it’s easy to mistake the actual content of Fusion for Mic or FiveThirtyEight for Vox. This trend promises to get worse as more and more publishers bow to the platform mandate.

There are other downsides. Loyal readers allow publications to develop special relationships with their audiences, for which Facebook has no substitute. I had a blog once. It wasn’t big, but I loved knowing who I was writing for. I loved knowing that the same couple hundred people would come back again and again, and that I could experiment with form and style and range because I had an audience I could count on.

A farewell to context

And then there’s the issue of context smudge—the way articles start to lose meaning when they are stripped away from their publication’s history and voice. The phenomenon is kind of like “context collapse” (or “conversation smoosh”), when a comment that might make sense to a limited audience of friends and family with the context to understand it takes on a different meaning when it’s exposed to an infinite number of online readers.

Context on Facebook is whatever appears above and below an article in the stream, which could be anything—a baby picture, a happy birthday, a hot take. When context gets smudged, whole constellations of meaning are lost. But when readers steep themselves in the unique discourse of a publication (assuming the publication has a unique discourse), they get access to meaning and nuance.

Jeet Heer’s reckoning with The New Republic’s legacy of racism carries a lot more weight if the people reading the piece are familiar with the publication and its historically neo-liberal perspective. Likewise, readers who understand The New York Times’ stalwart voice are better equipped to recognize flaws or prejudices in its reporting. But now the idioms and grammar of a publication, once valuable, have become window dressing. Readers have fewer incentives to engage meaningfully with journalism, which only hastens the slow smudging away of context.

The case for paying up

We’re also losing the organic and open shape of the web. It’s becoming something much more rigid and more hierarchical. As the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan movingly wrote for Matter:

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.

The open “nodes and networks” of websites are a direct contrast to the closed fist of platforms. Derakhshan writes, “Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer.”

As publications rush to put their content first—or even exclusively—on proprietary platforms, they abandon the open web. But maybe the open web was just a fever dream of the late nineties and aughts. Maybe the arc of the internet doesn’t bend toward openness after all. But I believe (and hope) that there’s still a wild and strange internet worth fighting for that maintains its openness, context, and freedom.

The answer is simple, but it isn’t easy. We need to stop pretending that content is free. Publications need to ask readers to pay for their content directly, and readers need to be willing to give up money, as opposed to their privacy and attention. This means that publications will have to abandon the rapid-growth business models driven by display ads, which have driven them to rely on Facebook for millions of pageviews a month.

There’s a lot to be gained in this scenario. Readers could get the benefit of the open web while dodging the clickbait excesses of ad-supported internet journalism. Publishers could regain independence, loyalty and context. The only parties that lose (a bit) are Facebook and the rest. But we don’t need to concern ourselves too much with the health of platforms. Nature has a way of sorting them out all by itself.