Facebook wants to be a newspaper — meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Locked gate

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

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