Amazon was once an online bookstore. Now it publishes books, and produces TV shows and movies (just like Netflix, which started as a DVD-by-mail company). Twitter is broadcasting political and sporting events, Apple will soon launch original streaming video content, and Snapchat has gone from a messaging service for sending self-destructing intimate photos to having a programming deal with NBC. Among all this shifting and pivoting, social media king Mark Zuckerberg claims that Facebook is not going to become a media company; he may be mistaken.
“[W]e are a tech company, not a media company,” Le Zuck told students in Rome today (according to Reuters) when pressed about Facebook’s ever-increasing role in news dissemination.
Facebook has increasingly become not just a place for people to get their news, but the place. There is, in fact, a high degree of likelihood that you’re reading this story because it was shared on Facebook by a friend, or it managed to eke its way into Facebook’s sought-after, but highly controversial “Trending” list.
Reuters says Zuckerberg acknowledged his company’s position as a place for people to go and get news from around the world, but the CEO stressed that Facebook is “a technology company, we build the tools, we do not produce any content.”
Zuck is trying to distinguish between content creators and the tech platforms that allow for that content to be shared, but one could argue that just because Facebook doesn’t (yet) create original content doesn’t mean it’s not a de facto media company.
The Facebook Trending module is, in effect, a form of original content. Much like the “international news” sections of smaller-market newspapers — or the back half of most local TV news shows — are filled with content pulled from wire services or other third parties, the Trending module is a curated selection of things the site believes you will be most interested to read.
Yes, that Trending module has become fully automated in the last few days, but it is not merely a list of the most popular items being shared on Facebook. That would be too easy for pranksters and deep-pocketed news sites to game; it would also be boring, repetitive, and irrelevant for lots of Facebook users.
No, behind the scenes the Trending algorithm is curating, matching, vetting, parsing, and various other gerunds, in the hopes of providing users with Trending items that are new, relevant, and interesting. The fact it’s being done by a machine and not a human doesn’t negate its status as a form of curated, original content.
Similarly, the Facebook algorithm has been used for years now to — sometimes to users’ consternation — rearrange newsfeeds out of their chronological order. The company isn’t just a neutral platform; it is a publisher, picking and choosing which of your high school friends’ political rantings to prioritize and which of your work colleagues’ dog photos to ignore.
More recently, Facebook announced it will soon begin filtering for mislabeled “sponsored” or “branded” content — you know, when a car company pays a website to write a story that just happens to be about how awesome its cars are — so that users are either not slammed with ads (for which Facebook isn’t getting paid) or they at least know that they are ads.
Facebook is effectively taking the shards of information put out there by your hodge-podge of online connections and trying to form them into a pleasant mosaic. Does it matter that this is done with technology instead of forcing some unpaid intern to read through and re-sort users’ feeds?
There have long been companies that walked the fine line between being a media platform and a media company, just not with reach on the scale of anything even approaching Facebook’s.
For instance, there are still local TV stations (and some cable TV channels) that have no original content. All of their shows are produced by someone else; they license bargain-basement movies to fill the air. Yet these programs are not randomly aired, but are selected for air times that the channel’s operator believes will bring in the biggest audience.
Likewise, radio disc jockeys aren’t (with rare, regrettable exceptions like Rick Dees) writing and playing their own music. They often play long blocks of songs without interruption. Again, the big-picture “content” here is the entirety of a radio broadcast, the putting together of thirty minutes or an hour of pre-existing content that will keep the most people (or the most people from the demographic your advertisers are trying to reach) tuned in.
Pandora, the online radio service, may offer one of the closest analogs to Facebook’s situation. It’s automated, using the artists you look for and provide feedback on to predict what songs will keep you listening and it does this for each of the company’s 80 million or so users.
Perhaps the “media company” question hinges on the fact that each Facebook feed and each Pandora station is unique to the particular end user? If they were broadcasting out identical content to all, or even large chunks, of their users slapping that label on these companies might be easier.
After all, printing out a single copy of my book Raiders on Aaar-Chee: Dust to Dust, Vol. I and selling it on my stoop ($24.99 or best offer) doesn’t make me a publisher. A publisher prints and sells multiple copies, and not just to your cousin Gayle.
However, if I could offer that ability to print out and sell your own book to just about anyone in the world, does that make me a publisher, or just a guy who goes through a lot of paper and toner? Can’t I be both?
Yes, Facebook is a platform for you to post whatever you feel like sharing. But it’s also running whatever you publish through an automated filtration, rearranging system in an effort to best keep readers reading (and coming back for more). Maybe it’s not technically a “media company,” but in some ways it sure acts like one.