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Facebook has disrupted or helped to re-engineer many businesses and markets, including the photo-sharing market and the social-gaming market. But one thing it hasn’t really focused on so far is the news business. Plenty of media companies use Facebook as a news-delivery platform, and many users (including Gawker founder Nick Denton, according to a recent interview) rely on it as a news source. But Facebook itself hasn’t done much to capitalize on that. That could change, however, judging by some comments from chief technology officer Bret Taylor — and it could pit the social network against Twitter in the race to become a social news platform.
While Taylor — the former co-founder of the social network FriendFeed — didn’t provide much in the way of details during his interview, he did say that he sees disruption coming to a number of industries as a result of social platforms like Facebook, much like it has to gaming, and that one of those disrupted industries is likely to be media:
If we had to guess, it’s probably going to be orientated around media or news, because they are so social. When you watch a television show with your friend, it’s such an engaging social activity. We think that there’s a next generation of startups that are developing social versions of these applications, where what Zynga is to gaming, they will be to media and news, and we’re really excited about that.
Taylor’s comments seem to suggest that Facebook isn’t looking to do anything news-related itself, but is hoping that developers will come up with social-news applications that can run on top of the Facebook platform, the same way that Zynga’s games like Farmville or Cityville do. One example might be an app like Flipboard, which takes a person’s Facebook stream and makes it part of a social-news service. Another interesting experiment is a similar app called PostPost. Facebook is also clearly continuing to push the open-graph plugin strategy that has helped sites like The Huffington Post drive massive amounts of traffic and comments to the site, and offering improved commenting as a plugin for media outlets appears to be a focus as well.
At one point not that long ago, it looked like Facebook might be trying to become a news platform in a different way, by aggregating news itself, as a way of becoming a sort of personalized newspaper for users. There were some initial moves in that direction that didn’t really go anywhere, and then more recently the network launched something it called “community pages,” which aggregate posts based on topic keywords and looked as though they could become a news aggregation service. But many of those pages are effectively useless, and amount to little more than SEO spam traps: one early example pulled in every post that mentioned the word “depends” and displayed it on a page about the adult undergarments of the same name.
The interesting thing about Taylor’s comments as they apply to television — and how social it is becoming, as people talk about shows with their friends in real-time — is that this is exactly what Twitter is also focusing on. Robin Sloan of the Twitter media team has talked about this phenomenon (including during a presentation at GigaOM’s NewTeeVee Live conference in November) and how it can drive viewership for events such as the MTV Movie Awards, etc. In a more recent example, the number of tweets sent during the Super Bowl set a new record, with about 4,000 being sent every second at the peak.
With its new real-time commenting features, which are being rolled out to all users now, it seems obvious that Facebook is also interested in becoming the discussion forum for such events — and possibly for breaking news like the uprising in Egypt, where Facebook has played a key role in getting information out about the protests and in helping dissidents coordinate their activities (despite the issues with the social network’s real-name policy, which I wrote about recently). But Twitter is a powerful player in that regard as well, with people like NPR’s Andy Carvin becoming one-man newswire services and curating the information coming from Egypt in real time.
Although Facebook may be focusing more on itself as a platform for apps and media outlets, it clearly has ambitions when it comes to the ongoing “socialization of news,” and at some point that means it is going to run headlong into Twitter.
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