Media disruption (3): social media and distributed content


How does social media affect news consumption and production?

The two previous articles in this series have shown how mobile screens are the primary access points for information and news consumption has moved online. How important are social networks in people’s online experience, and what is their role and impact on news?

The number of people with a social media profile has risen greatly in recent years. Nearly 2 billion people around the world currently use social networks. In the UK, “nearly three quarters (72%) of internet users have a social media profile, compared to 22% in 2007.” In the US the numbers are even higher – 73% of the population have a social media profile, up from 24% in 2008.

Facebook is the behemoth of the social media world, with 1.4 billion monthly active users, although people increasingly have multiple networks. Social media is also used frequently, with 70% of Americans accessing Facebook daily. Unsurprisingly, Facebook also dominates the social media pathway to news.

The Reuters Institute survey of ten countries investigated the most popular social networks in general, and the networks that were most popular for news.

Social networks for news

Their conclusion: “around half of Facebook (57%) and Twitter users (50%) say they find, share, or discuss a news story in a given week, but news is considerably less important in other networks.”

However, usage varies by age, country, and gender. In the US, 60% of “millennials” (18-34 years old) name their Facebook feed as their top news source, compared to 39% of “baby boomers” (51-69 years old). The Reuters Institute found that “around 90% of Facebook users in Brazil and Italy use the network for news each week compared with less than half of those in the UK.” Image-focused social networks are growing fast amongst the young, Pinterist has enormous reach amongst American women, and girls dominate teenage use of visually oriented social media.

Whichever way you look at this data, the significance of social networks for news is undeniable. Media organisations know this, given, for example, that 15% of referral traffic to The New York Times, and 25% to National Geographic, comes from Facebook. As the Times CEO Mark Thompson has said, “we have an interest in broadening the reach of the New York Times, and going out and finding audiences in other environments…we want to fish for new users in the ponds where they are.”

This marks a fundamental shift in the media economy. Richard Stacey has summed it up perfectly: “the social media revolution…is all about the separation of information from its means of distribution.” As a recent report on the content strategies of Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter observed:

Traditionally, media companies have operated independently and controlled their own destinies. They owned the whole content supply chain, from research to writing to publication to distribution. In the digital era, they built their own websites, which drew loyal readers (direct traffic), and they sold most of the ads that ran on their sites, keeping 100% of the revenue.

Those days are gone.

Now the fate of publishers increasingly depends on social platforms such as Facebook, where billions of people discover news to read and videos to watch. And the social platforms are equally interested in the media business.

Social networks are changing production in light of the new patterns of consumption. Media organisations are either accommodating or embracing the separation of information from its means of distribution through strategies of distributed content.

Distributed content is publishing directly to platforms you don’t control. It is something social media users do all the time, but as noted above, it is new for media organisations. It can be found in large companies like BuzzFeed, which has embraced it through its strategy of being a “network-integrated company,” being indifferent to the platform and focusing on “making content for the way people consume media today.” This means, for example, less than 5% of BuzzFeed’s video views happen on their own site. It can lead to the reorganisation of a campus newspaper, which gave up print and its own web site to focus on using platforms like Medium and Twitter. And it is the thinking behind Instant Articles, the Facebook collaboration with nine media companies, that has been launched slowly.

Distributed content in partnership with Facebook involves considerable risks for media companies. As much as Facebook maintains their algorithms have little impact and users control the content of their News Feed (see the excellent critical analysis of that claim by Jay Rosen), Facebook is anything but a neutral machine impartially distributing the news. Moreover, those algorithms regularly change in ways that no one publicly knows, meaning while Facebook is not an editor in the classical sense, it is a powerful filter of news.

We’ve seen this filtering power with the decline of organic reach – “how many people you can reach for free on Facebook by posting to your Page” – a process that has been underway for a couple of years. This has meant anyone trying to promote things through getting likes for pages has been progressively less successful. This is something photographers have to consider, given so many have a Facebook page at the heart of their social media presence. The dalliance of organic reach has been “catastrophic” for non-profit organisation who can no longer get to the vast majority of their fans unless they pay to boost a post. Facebook is quite open about the high level of selection this involves:

Rather than showing people all possible content, News Feed is designed to show each person on Facebook the content that’s most relevant to them. Of the 1,500+ stories a person might see whenever they log onto Facebook, News Feed displays approximately 300. To choose which stories to show, News Feed ranks each possible story (from more to less important) by looking at thousands of factors relative to each person.

Facebook is thus, in the words of Frederic Filloux, “an unpredictable spigot, whose flow varies according to constantly changing and opaque criteria.” Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, has spoken similarly on the new relationship between media and technology companies (see her 2014 Reuters Institute lecture and her 2015 Hugh Cudlipp lecture). Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, she concluded:

The traffic to your stories, the pathways to audiences and even the shape of your newsrooms are changed by this new balance of power [between the news business and the social media giants]. The obscurity of how these systems and algorithms works has not been lifted by agreements that might raise advertising revenues. The locus of power in delivery and distribution of news has shifted, irrevocably, towards commercial companies who have priorities that often compete with those of journalism.

Embracing distributed content and a network-integrated approach makes great sense given the dynamics of the new media economy. Dealing somehow with social networks like Facebook makes great sense if you want to get to where the audience is currently found. But long term success is also going to depend on those producing news, information and stories being on, and adapting to, a variety of platforms so that we are not beholden to one monopolistic distributor.

In the final article in this series, I argue these transformations mean we need to think differently about storytelling, moving from content to service

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