For the last few years, Facebook’s role in online journalism has been a hotly debated topic. Many sites have relied heavily on Facebook for traffic, often looking for ways to “game” the system to get more shares on Facebook (which brought us the rise of “clickbait”). You can go back years and find stories of news sites trying to figure out how much they should change their practices to “adapt” to whatever Facebook was doing at the time. And lots of journalists worry and fret about how Facebook might change its algorithms in ways that mess up all the hard work they put into gaming the system.
And then… a few weeks ago, the NY Times reported that Facebook was working with some publishers to get them to publish their news directly to Facebook, using the site not just as a platform for getting links to your news stories, but as a platform for hosting the news stories themselves. Not surprisingly, journalists have mostly reacted negatively to this deal — with many referring to it as a Faustian bargain in which publications may get more attention and a larger community, but in exchange for giving up their souls. Mathew Ingram (in the link above) even argues that it’s worse than that:
In some ways, dealing with Facebook is actually worse than Faust’s deal: The German scholar chose to cut a deal with Satan primarily because he was vain, but media companies are forced to work with Facebook whether they want to or not, because the platform plays such a huge role in how millions of people come into contact with the news. With that kind of clout, news entities can’t afford to not be on the network, but the more content they put there, the more they risk losing even more control over their business — and the only one in a position to dictate the terms of such a deal is Facebook.
Some others, however, have really embraced the platform. Josh Stearns recently had an interesting article discussing the success of Jersey Shore Hurricane News — a publication that has existed almost entirely on Facebook since it was founded back in 2011 (and where it’s built up a strong community).
My gut reaction is to agree with those like Mathew, who see relying on something like Facebook as a risky proposition. But I think the key there is in the issue of whether or not you’re truly relying on the platform. To some extent, this debate sounds like the nearly identical debate from just a few years ago concerning various websites focusing so much on getting more traffic from Google, and all the fears about how Google had too much power to make or break a site (famously leading up to its famed Google Panda release, that did actually “break” some sites that relied too strongly on Google for all their traffic.
At Techdirt, we’ve always tried to be somewhat agnostic to all of this — focusing instead on just writing good content with the focus on building a community that (hopefully) will keep coming back to see what we’re doing, regardless of how other sites treat us. But even we’re not immune to ebbs and flows as other sites change. A few years ago, we suddenly started getting a ton of traffic from StumbleUpon, though I still have no idea why. That lasted for about a year and then went away when StumbleUpon changed its algorithms. Then Reddit drove a ton of traffic to us for a while. It still does, but less so recently, after Reddit admins demoted two of the subreddits that seemed to drive the most traffic (r/technology and r/politics). And so we just keep focusing on writing what we write, and hoping that people like it enough to share however and wherever they want. We don’t have a “social media manager” or a “social media strategy” and perhaps that’s a mistake in terms of gaming whatever system to get traffic, but we’d rather just focus on writing what we think is good content.
Still, this big debate over whether or not news sites should “embrace” Facebook has me thinking about similar debates in other fields, like whether or not musicians should embrace platforms like Spotify or YouTube for their music. Many musicians have responded the way that journalists have responded to Facebook, fearing what happens when they give up control to those big platforms who could change important concepts on a whim, and who keep most of the important details (who’s accessing your content, how do you reach them?) and monetization options to themselves.
There are some key differences of course — in part in how people consume music vs. news. Music is more inherently something that you want all in a single place and on a single platform. News is a little different. But there are some similarities as well. In the end, it seems like the best strategy remains the one where you experiment widely with whatever your biggest fans want while making sure you don’t become too reliant on any one platform. I still think that musicians should be putting music on various platforms, and news publications should be experimenting on different platforms (including Facebook), based on where they see their communities/audiences going. But they should always be focused most on creating the great content that brings in more people, and try to make sure they don’t become totally reliant on any single platform.
In the music space, that means putting music on Spotify and YouTube, but making sure you’re not solely reliant on those for your business. Make use of other platforms as well — your own website, Bandcamp, Patreon, Kickstarter, Soundcloud, etc. — just as news sites should be willing to experiment with Facebook and others (like Reddit, Medium, Flipboard, LinkedIn, etc.). The trick is just in balancing these things so that there are always other options if one of those platforms goes off in a direction you dislike.
Given all of that, I have trouble buying the “Faustian bargain” argument that some have made about Facebook. It seems like it’s just another platform with some benefits and some negatives. There will be ways to use it well — which some will find. There will be ways that it is abused. And Facebook may eventually change its strategy entirely, leaving those who relied too strongly on it out to dry. In the end, it seems the strategy worth taking is being willing to experiment, while keeping other options open, so that you’re not entirely at the whims of another company. Years ago, we wrote about being careful about whose platform you became reliant on and that still holds true today.
But the key there is not fearing others’ platforms, but fearing reliance on them. Use them to your advantage, and always keep the doors open to other opportunities.