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Summary:

Facebook’s director of product Mike Hudack posted a rant about the inadequacies of the media — including some new-media sites like Vox — and their focus on click-bait content, but many argued that Facebook itself helps promote that type of content. So who is right?

Facebook director of product Mike Hudack lit the fuse on a massive powder-keg of emotion on Thursday, when he posted a rant about the current state of the media. In Hudack’s view, too much of what currently passes for journalism is shallow click-bait. Almost immediately, you could hear journalists across the country popping blood vessels: After all, isn’t the fact that click-bait reigns supreme at least partly Facebook’s fault?

In his post, Hudack says that CNN has become “the network of kidnapped white girls” and that the nation’s newspapers have been mostly “hollowed out” and are “ghosts in a shell.” Meanwhile, BuzzFeed gets criticized for being mostly listicles, and Vox gets slammed for not providing the kind of serious journalism that the Facebook product manager says he was hoping for:

“Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of just watching them from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy. And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.”

But isn’t this all Facebook’s fault?

Within a matter of minutes following Hudack’s post, there were opposing rants from journalists — in the comments on his post, on Twitter and later in critical posts at sites like Vox itself, as well as BuzzFeed, Gawker and Forbes. Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal seemed to sum up the views of many in his response to Hudack, which he posted both on Facebook and on Twitter:

Of course, it’s probably not fair to blame Mike Hudack for — or ask him to justify — all of Facebook’s various sins against the media. For one thing, he hasn’t been at the company that long, and while he is described by many of his critics as “director of product” for the giant social network, he makes it clear in one of his responses that his primary responsibility is for advertising and brand-related pages.

It’s also worth noting that one of the first questions Hudack was asked was whether he thought Facebook could help fix the problems he described, and he responded: “Yes I do.” Whether it can or not remains to be seen: the network has been trying by tweaking its algorithm to focus on more “high quality” content — but how exactly it defines that phrase remains frustratingly unclear.

Is it fair to blame Facebook for all of the various click-bait offences committed by media outlets? In his post at Vox, entitled “Facebook product director furious at Facebook’s effect on news,” Matt Yglesias argues that it is, because the social traffic driven by the network is such a big contributor to the reach of many sites:

“It is not hard to tell who is to blame for the fact that the jeans story (which is a great, interesting, informative story) got more readers than Andrew Prokop’s excellent feature on the DATA Act. Facebook is to blame… these days the bulk of web traffic is driven by social media and the bulk of social traffic is driven by Facebook.”

Social traffic is what matters

The fact that Facebook and Twitter are more important than Google when it comes to sending traffic to media sites isn’t really in dispute, at least not anywhere credible. Even the New York Times acknowledged this in its recent innovation report, which talked about the need to be part of the social conversation around its stories after they are published, instead of leaving others to capture the related web traffic. And the effect that Facebook’s algorithm can have is stark, as Huffington Post reporter Kim Bhasin pointed out on Twitter:

As several journalists pointed out — including Mike Masnick at Techdirt, and Circa editor-in-chief Anthony De Rosa — no one is forcing media sites to pander to Facebook’s desires or algorithms if they don’t want to. Theoretically at least, the giant social network and its algorithm only have as much power as media companies choose to give it. But one of Hudack’s colleagues at Facebook argued they have no choice because of the way the media world is funded (i.e., based on advertisers who look at metrics like pageviews and social engagement):

“I think the justification is they do the link bait crap to pay for proper journalism. We need to figure out how we can both value and pay for an industry that has been totally disrupted by the internet.”

Hudack wasn’t having any of this explanation. In a comment that seemed mostly directed at new digital-media entities like BuzzFeed and Vox, he said: “I call bullshit. They do the link bait to make money. They do real journalism as a hobby if they do it at all. And once they realize that it’s a cost center that isn’t going to pay back their venture investors they shut it down. Just like their mass media forebears.”

Facebook and the media are in this together

In another lengthy response to a critical comment on his Facebook post, Hudack argued that the social network is trying to improve its algorithm so that it highlights more high-quality journalism, and that media companies themselves have to bear some of the blame for their own behavior:

“Is Facebook helping or hurting? I don’t honestly know. You guys are right to point out that Facebook sends a lot of traffic to shitty listicles. But the relationship is tautological, isn’t it? People produce shitty listicles because they’re able to get people to click on them. People click on them so people produce shitty listicles.”

In the end, Hudack and his critics seem to be interested in the same thing: namely, promoting better journalism. But neither one seems to know how to get there — especially when the business model for most media companies still relies on eyeball-based, click-driven metrics, and when many users (particularly the ones on Facebook) would much rather click to see a photo of a cute puppy than they would read a long and informative post on political corruption.

Can Facebook help solve that problem? I’m not convinced that it can, even if it does try to tweak its algorithm — all that does is turn it into something resembling an old-fashioned newspaper, and we know how things have worked out for them. In many ways, both the media and Facebook (which is a media company itself in many ways) are chasing human nature, because that’s what pays the bills. And until that changes, not much else will.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / NKMandic

  1. The root cause of this problem is not Facebook (which I would love to blame), but the fact that the collection and distribution of news and opinions is financed by advertisements. Worse, the virtually infinite number of ad slots available on the web has driven the price of ads so low that news sites and even TV news shows and print publications, which have been dragged into the price war like a nation whose neighbor’s civil war spills over its borders, have no choice but to focus on maximizing viewers. The result is that nobody is in business to report the news, but rather to attract viewers and sell access to them.

    I don’t see how this problem can be fixed unless enough people place enough value on receiving accurate, well written news, so that sustainable businesses can be created to provide that service. I’m not holding my breath, though.

    On the bright side, since I know that 98% of what is called “news” is just entertainment, I don’t have to waste any time reading it. Unless I want entertainment.

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  2. Adrian Lurssen Thursday, May 22, 2014

    A fascinating flare-up today in an ongoing debate – well summarized here. I don’t think what happened today (Mike Hudack’s post, the comments, the back and forth) will really make an ounce of difference, but I’m glad to see smart people take the time to share their thoughts on what *should* happen, even if it probably won’t.

    I have a very particular filter through we I see this, based on the type of content I trade in right now. I separate into two buckets: “need to know” and “want to know.” The rise of BuzzFeed has been via “want to know” type content IMO, stuff that you can do without but is (for some) fun to see nonetheless. Need-to-know content doesn’t stand a chance in the face of this, because it is usually drier, more serious, catered to a smaller readership.

    The other day the NYT ran a piece on why videos go viral (framed in a way that adds to the problem: learn, if you’d like your video to go viral, too!) — and the takeaway was: elicit an emotional response. Fine. Go for it. But also cringeworthy. In a landscape in which it’s really about real estate (every web page is another opportunity at turning eyeballs into dollars), creating content that is very clever about eliciting an emotional response will win, again and again, versus content that we need to know, whatever that happens to be at any given moment.

    Facebook is not to blame — it’s just a technology, a platform. This is about people giving other people, lots of them, formulaic content that strikes a chord. The editors who deliver this work are sharp folks – they know how to generate attention. That’s not the same thing as actually having something to say.

    In my view, either the ship will get so top-heavy it will capsize and sink under the weight of its own vacuousness, or the BuzzFeeds of the world will bring about their own undoing. People will get tired of the fluff. We can only hope…

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  3. Richard Ortiz Thursday, May 22, 2014

    Were all Infints in this social world. Must learn to do say the right thing in this social world. We’re crawling hopefully soon will walk. Blaming companies isn’t our way out. The future is ours to live. Now comes the learning game. Richard/peace of mind

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  4. what value to a society is worth the “pain of advertising” Once it was the News. and professional entertainment products. Facebook and Google decided advertising was good for financing everything, even a family phonebook and family photo album, or a web search for you childs health issues.
    btw- no one has still ever proven i’ll buy what my 3rd cousin says i should try.
    and thats the web2.0 lie.
    thats what social media is.. the medium of selling people as products/// not selling products to people.
    wake up, or stop being insincere geek jerks….
    mediabastard.)

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  5. Gee, Matt. This is just finger pointing. A rant ranting against a rant. Where’s the solution other than pointing fingers and assigning blame?

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    1. @rrdubac: There is no solution. Internet “news” is an oxymoron – 90% of all Web content has now achieved lowest-common-denominator status. Cronkite would have killed himself rather than add another two words to this nonsense. If you want “real” news, go PAY for a newspaper. And READ the f**kin’ thing cover to cover.

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  6. Commenter1000 Friday, May 23, 2014

    Media stating then debating the obvious . Lol. Just another bunch of dummys feeding the cycle.

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  7. Brett Stevenson Friday, May 23, 2014

    That’s kind of like the skunk calling the squirrel smelly.

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  8. Thatch Maguire Friday, May 23, 2014

    It’s just evolution. You can squawk all you want but the change is already under way. It seems very similar to the “Shock” front page cover stuff that began emerging in the 60’s to generate more copy sales. It was poor journalism, but it sold papers, and if you wanted to sell papers, you had to do it too. Today it’s about impressions not news. Just as the shock covers created an illusion that worked, generating impressions is the illusion that’s selling today. We’ve dumbed down and the old standards are disappearing. Why fight it, just tweet something totally stupid and see what happens. Success, you’ve generated impressions, and unfortunately that’s all that really matters these days, or at least in my humble opinion that’s all that matters

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  9. people are getting what they demand. puppies under blankets is about the deepest many people go. sorry.

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  10. If we step back and ask ” Why you need an efficient ads market for media , which is a public good ?”

    Why not pay reporters with public money or give incentives to them on top of their salary? Journalist has social function and its role is defining our future. Their work and professionalism should not be 100% determined by the market. Market to be efficient must be measured thus seller and buyer rely on pageviews and clicks.

    Imagine a pool of money to reward good quality articles. The allocation of money will be not based on network effect alone but more on the quality!

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