EDIT: Redstate has learned that Cox Media unceremoniously pulled the plug on Mr. Naham’s post as of April 2, 2018. Portions of if survive here.
In the “hey-day” of social media start-ups, Facebook went from being a popular platform for keeping up with family and friends to a vital business resource. Media companies began to use the connections made by Facebook users to spread their content. Business pages grew exponentially. Some outlets – like Independent Journal Review – became media outlets precisely and exclusively because of their Facebook reach. During Obama’s two terms, Facebook was a vital resource to his campaigns. They innovated data-gathering strategies and used Facebook as an indispensable messaging platform. All of Obama’s opponents were left scrambling to catch up, history was made.
Then along came 2016. Along came Trump. Suddenly those hailing the Obama team’s tech savvy were utterly confounded and enraged that the same strategies boosted this strange, reality-star “underdog” to the presidency. Facebook -once the darling of social media – began having to answer questions about how their algorithms helped spread “fake news”, or at least news that wasn’t benefiting a certain ideology and political bent.
It was a mess. Zuckerberg and his team immediately began promising to crack down on “fake news” and “clickbait” and “offensive” content. Algorithms shifted, censors were hired…unsurprisingly conservative outlets were punished the most harshly.
Media outlets like our own and IJR and others began to hire people who’s only job it was to work with Facebook and it’s constantly changing algorithms. Over the last year it has become sickeningly clear that Facebook has no real intentions of working with media outlets who pay handsomely to comply with their ever-changing rules. If you’ve noticed some of your favorite pages for news and culture can’t be seen anymore, that’s because Facebook is deliberately squashing them.
In March, the incredibly successful news and culture blog Rare -which is owned by media behemoth Cox Media – announced that they would be closing up shop after nearly five years as a major outlet. This week, a Rare writer who had been with them from the beginning posted a saddening and blistering op-ed about Facebook’s shady algorithm game, and how it is now killing careers and years of hard work – and ultimately free expression.
In “Killed by Facebook”, Matt Naham details the heady beginnings of the Rare start-up and how it expanded to multiple verticals which became hugely popular. Through hard work, good writing and a deliberate strategy to work within the Facebook boundaries Rare became one of the top sites for news and entertainment on the web. Naham says the plan was to seek out the “shareable” stories and make them most shareable on Facebook. But that didn’t last long…not long enough, anyway.
The challenge is identifying these stories; the easy part is winning with them on Facebook again and again.
But eventually, the roles would be reversed. We would become Dr. Frankenstein, and Facebook would become the Monster.
2016, the circus that it was, would prove to be the beginning of the end of our reign and the reigns of others.
Daily traffic goal posts began to move, if not to make ourselves feel better about the drop-off then just out of sheer inevitability. One could not simply expect to achieve the kind of Wild West numbers we’d gotten used to any longer. Since I was the most successful traffic person ever at Rare, easily surpassing 250 million views on my articles in my time there, I took solving the traffic problem very personally.
What I didn’t know at the time, since my understanding of The Almighty Facebook Algorithm and its potentially crushing effects was in its infancy, was that the drop-off wasn’t my fault, and that I had little capacity to change it.
Rare scrambled to keep up with the constant changes. They, and others, paid Facebook huge sums of money for access and aid in navigating the algorithm jungle. Facebook had cleverly (and very capitalistically) found a way to monetize their influence. It only seemed fair for a private company, and media outlets were miffed but willing to play the game. This is how it’s done in America.
Only, Facebook wouldn’t stop moving the goalposts. They were happy to take the money all the while making it more and more difficult for content to be shared and even seen.
Live by the algorithm, die by the algorithm: How LittleThings went from social publishing darling to shutting down,” LittleThings CEO and founder Joe Speiser was quoted as saying once, “As long as you constantly pivot within the Facebook ecosystem, you’ll be fine.”
Constant pivoting was no longer viable, because the Facebook ecosystem had ruled it out by design.
There was no more “this is fine.”
Organic reach was replaced by pay-to-play, and pay-to-play became a dangerous game, nothing short of self-annihilation through meaningless click-and-reach-chasing with no actual, long-term brand value.
The futility of a Facebook-first business model had become glaring to a blinding degree.
Naham says the team at Rare became increasingly frustrated, and it soon became clear that their grand and hugely successful endeavor would be coming to an end – all because of an intentionally vicious algorithm.
The content team was rudderless, the tension was building, and the expectation of the worst characterized the malaise of more than a month.
On March 1, 2018, it was revealed to all employees that Fans 1st Media would be closing its doors at the end of the month. Before it was announced to teams in Austin, Nashville, Atlanta and D.C., I had that phone call with my boss.
More than 100 people would be scattered to the winds. It wasn’t a good feeling.
Rare isn’t the only casualty of Facebook’s changes. Several start-up sites (including one I recently worked for) were forced to close just as they were taking off. The hugely popular Right Wing News has already had to close their doors. Rumors of serious issues at online media giants like IJR and The Blaze abound. It won’t be long before more and more of your favorite news pages are simply gone for good in Facebook-land.
It is clear they are making moves to become their own media outlet, thus having complete control over what users see and share. Have you noticed more FBTV videos popping up in your feed? Facebook wants to be what you share. Facebook wants the approval of what you share. Facebook wants any media outlet left on their platform to have to work through their own media in order to have any reach.
In short, Facebook’s big “solution” to tamping down fake news is to become the news.
We should all be concerned about what that might mean in the upcoming election cycles.