Tow Center

The media today: Wake up to your analytics overlords, sheeple

August 9, 2017
Image: AP

In a revealing piece for The Atlantic, Franklin Foer tells of his time working with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes at The New Republic. Foer’s account is strikingly confessional, at least for Foer, about the hopes he had for integrating a social media-friendly attitude and his willingness to join Hughes in “idealism.” Hughes suggested their shared vision would “[tie] together [The New Republic’s] storied past and [Hughes’s] optimism about solutions.” But Foer quickly soured on running a magazine like a tech company. Analytics companies such as Chartbeat, he writes, “now hover over the newsroom” “like a manager standing over the assembly line with a stopwatch.”

While The New Republic and others may not be explicitly driven by pageview quotas, Foer writes, the mentality remains: “In most cases it’s subconscious and embedded in euphemism. … it’s this train of thought that leads editors to declare an idea ‘not worth the effort’ or to worry about whether an article will ‘sink.’”

Foer’s narrative, while it rings very true today, ends in 2014, when he left the magazine, on a bleak note about the future of journalism. Three years later, tech companies have found more ways to influence news strategy. Because Facebook drives a huge chunk of publisher traffic, publishers have been willing to adopt the formats Facebook pushes. Hence, the “pivot to video.” Over at Quartz, John West writes that “Facebook really, really wants native videos. . . . And publishers know an edict when they hear one.”

ICYMI: Politico embarrasses WSJ

The same goes for Instant Articles, Facebook’s own article format that keeps readers on Facebook rather than pointing them offsite. Originally pitched to publishers as a way to organically get more readers through faster loading times, Facebook recently introduced the ability to add a paywall to Instant. It sounds good for publishers, and good for readers, right? Yes, until you think about Facebook’s artful manipulation of the industry, luring publishers with scale, and then capturing publishers’ reader data itself. Last week, Facebook announced that it would begin prioritizing fast-loading pages in its News Feed—another incentive to get publishers on its own format.

As West writes, “It might be time for publications to band together to stand up to Facebook,” to break out of their “golden handcuffs”:

  • John Lanchester, writing in the London Review of Books, has a long, sobering takedown of Facebook, which hammers home its pervasiveness, power, and opacity: “Facebook is deeply interested in [automation and artificial intelligence]. We don’t know where this is going, we don’t know what the social costs and consequences will be, we don’t know what will be the next area of life to be hollowed out, the next business model to be destroyed, the next company to go the way of Polaroid or the next business to go the way of journalism or the next set of tools and techniques to become available to the people who used Facebook to manipulate the elections of 2016.”
  • Foer wrote about his and Hughes’s fundamentally different worldviews: “My vision of the world was moralistic and romantic; his was essentially technocratic.” Last year, Emily Bell wrote in the pages of CJR about the same culture clash between tech and editorial value systems.
  • Craig Silverman and his team’s latest, detailed analysis of “the growing universe of partisan websites and Facebook pages about US politics” at BuzzFeed reveals that liberal-leaning sites such as NowThis are dominating on Facebook Pages. Mother Jones Editor in Chief Clara Jeffery questioned Silverman’s criteria for left leaning, calling it “apples, car parts, and Q tips.”
  • On the subject of liberal memes, this weekend The New York Times published a piece on growing investment by political donors in “internet virality.”
  • A foray into civics? On Facebook, “You may soon see posts from politicians you don’t follow” (Recode).
  • “Why I’m not a tech utopian”: At The New Republic, a first-person account of the early days of the Portapak camera and early days of tech cynicism for the author, Ellen Ullman.
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Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.