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Summary:

Mark Zuckerberg and the man in charge of Facebook’s newsfeed want it to become like a newspaper, and highlight more “high quality” content — but what if that’s not what users actually want to see? Will they rebel against Facebook as content gatekeeper?

As Facebook rolls out some new algorithms relating to its main News Feed, there has been a lot of attention paid to who might win and who might lose as the social network reshuffles its ranking system for content. But the bigger picture behind all these moves, as Mike Isaac notes in a piece at All Things Digital, is that Facebook is asserting even more of its control over what users see, as part of its goal to become a kind of digital newspaper.

This sounds like a laudable goal, especially for people who like newspapers. But in doing this — as I’ve tried to point out before — Facebook is in danger of running into the exact same kinds of problems that actual newspapers are wrestling with, both in terms of content and advertising.

Who defines what’s high quality content?

Isaac’s post, which appears to be based on interviews with a number of anonymous sources on the product-design team at Facebook, specifically refers to the desire by VP of product Chris Cox and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg to create a unified newsfeed experience that is similar to a newspaper — in that it delivers “high quality” and useful content from a variety of sources in a single place.

“The overall goal here: Cox and Zuckerberg, the two most vocal proponents of this philosophy, want visiting the site to be a ‘useful’ experience, delivering a well-rounded assortment of content for people across the world, in a tight, well-crafted package.”

newspaper boxes

As Isaac notes, the tension this creates is becoming increasingly obvious: Cox and Zuckerberg want the newsfeed to surface “high quality” content — which another Facebook product manager has described as 1,000-word pieces on serious topics, as opposed to viral internet memes involving cat GIFs. According to the sources Isaac talked to, “Cox especially has a problem with BuzzFeed and sites similar to it.” That kind of comment is creating some consternation among media sites as they await what could be Facebook’s version of Google’s content-farm-killing Panda update.

Facebook decides what you see, not you

But beyond all of the jockeying for position when it comes to who gets favored by Facebook and who doesn’t, the motivation behind the latest moves is clear — it wants to show users what it thinks is “high quality” content, instead of the stuff that users have actually said they want to see, by voting on it with their clicks. This is the same kind of gatekeeper mentality that newspapers have been addicted to since they used to own the information channel.

It reminds me of when Google CEO Larry Page mused aloud in 2011 about how Google News wasn’t showing the kind of “important” content he thought users should be seeing, and how we thought the company should maybe fix that problem (it’s not clear whether it actually did so or not).

According to Isaac’s piece, Facebook is not only downplaying certain content, but has actually delayed implementing support for animated GIF images out of fear that they might clutter up the stream. I’m no fan of cat GIFs and memes, but what if that’s actually what people want to see and share? The more that Facebook acts as a gatekeeper, the less like a social network it becomes and the more like a newspaper. And we all know how well that has worked out for newspapers.

This post was updated after it was published to correct the spelling of the last name of part-time toilet paper spokesman and AllThingsD reporter Mike Isaac, who, according to the New York Times, is a 6.5 on Lulu. Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Redchanka and Flickr user George Kelly

  1. At least you credited All Things Digital, because there is no point to this article given they wrote all about this yesterday and you’re just jumping on their coat tails

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  2. intriguing points, and I’d watch over how Facebook deal with ‘news’ in their newsfeed system!

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  3. Put down the Facebook for ten minutes and read some good old fashioned writing at Smashpipe or another independent website. Patronize sites that are not written for SEO, robots, or regurgitating the same nonsense (This site is a perfect example of lazy writing). Visit websites that are an honest read. Support independent writing in the world. Stop supporting wealthy media outlets. We don’t need Facebook news. We need YOU visiting and bookmarking websites that support independent writers. You are not an infant. You do NOT need Facebook shoving generic news down your throat. Stop being lazy. You have a computer connected to the internet. Stop visiting four sites a day. Visit 10 or 20 or 30. Use your brain and avoid fake news sites. Get it? YOU ARE the problem. STOP CONSUMING THE CRAP NEWS AND MAKE AN EFFORT TO SUPPORT WRITERS DOING HONEST WORK! Think about it for a moment. Have a heart.

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    1. We ARE using our brains, constantly, at very demanding tasks throughout the day. There would be a lot of value in a trustable, objective content curator synthesizing the entire story (both the parts certain to offend left-wingers and right-wingers) into a single brief and coherent narrative. But no one, least of all Facebook, has addressed him- or herself to the task.

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    2. Newspeak Magazin Thursday, December 12, 2013

      And that is a good point you’ve made. We or You should decide, what we read and how we interprete it. Much has been said about facebook and tweeter as a free tool for democracy. Hmm I do not think so. People must be controlled. Naturally that news way will give some content you can choose of. But still it will be someting like you are free to do (read) what we tell (give) you. Conclusion – I don’t buy it. Let the word be free!

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    3. I don’t want Facebook “shoving news” down my throat. I want to see what my friends are posting and what the companies that I follow have going on, and I want to see ALL OF IT in reverse chronological order. I want to see what is news to them. And when I want to see what’s news(usually industry specific) to me, I’ll go to the websites I like to visit. And when I find articles that I think are interesting and of possible interest to my friends, I’d like to think I can post it on FB in hopes of all my friends seeing the link. You know, like socializing or something.

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  4. I think it’s a great idea. It would improve user experience.

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