Told you so. Told you so. Nyaah nyah nyaah nyah, told you so.
Way back last spring, when Facebook’s Instant Stories came to this world, I -- like everyone else in publishing -- considered the possibility of salvation. If publishers were to cede distribution to Facebook, they would not only achieve faster loading speeds and a better user experience, they would benefit by vastly higher reach and at least theoretically -- based on Facebook’s incomparable data set -- significantly higher CPMs.
A bigger number times a bigger number = a way bigger revenue number. Boom.
Maybe, I mused, Instant Stories were going to be the magic beans to grow a magic beanstalk to plunder the goose that lays the golden eggs. Magic would be most useful at the moment, after all, due to reality totally sucking.
But I wasn’t born yesterday, and let’s just call me cautiously pessimistic. Here was one of the concerns I had back in April 2015, were, say, The New York Times to go all in with social media as its principal delivery channel:
Facebook would have to be trusted, once becoming the center of the Times distribution world, not to change the rules midstream. Such as, hypothetically, by tweaking the EdgeRank algorithm to influence which articles get into the newsfeeds of whom -- either to squeeze its partners for a bigger rev share or to deemphasize “problematic” content. Of course, they've never pulled such highhanded stunts -- except for, you know, constantly from the beginning.
So imagine my non-surprise the other day to see the following headline right here in MediaPost:
A unilateral change in terms from Facebook? You could have knocked me over with a feather. Ha ha. Now, as our Eric Sass explained, the adjustments make perfect sense. Publishers were so inundating our newsfeeds with Instant Stories, the news was beginning to crowd out the actual social content. Sometimes you want to learn about scores of innocent people being slaughtered, and sometimes you just want to see Caitlin’s kindergarten graduation pictures.
As Facebook Vice President of Product Management Adam Mosseri told the press: “Your average friend probably posts a few things a week, the average publisher you follow probably posts hundreds of things a day. We’ve made some ranking changes to try to better connect people with their friends.” And as such the EdgeRank algorithm has been tweaked to prioritize the genuinely personal. Which, yes, if we’re speaking of social media, makes perfect sense. The fact is, however, as Eric informs us:
Earlier this month, a study from SocialFlow found that media companies have seen their average audiences per story decline by 42% from 117,000 in January to just 68,000 in May.
Separately, another study from analytics firm SocialWhip found that the combined activity for the ten biggest English-language publishers on Facebook fell from 287 million engagements per month in July 2015 to 162 million per month in April of this year, for a 44% decline over this period.
Yikes. Now Eric also reports what he called a potential “silver lining,” namely that when individual users share publisher content, that counts as personal, with all the extra exposure that provides. Which at first glance seems more than a fair and promising outcome for the cream that rises to the top.
Except, remember: cautiously pessimistic. This solution seems to promote a sort of social media Darwinism -- survival of the funnest -- that will penalize serious, complex, eat-your-veggies journalism to the benefit of highly shareable fluff. In fact, if you go back to April 2015:
Far more than now, the Times and all other Facebook partners would be incented to produce the most shareworthy content for Facebook. Goodbye, Sierra Leone and environmental coverage. Hello, Grumpy cat.
Yeah. That’s me. Garfield, the grumpy cat. Dyspeptic, pessimistic, obnoxious…. and tragically correct.