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Facebook vs Apple News+ isn't a thing
The big tech companies may look like they do things similarly, but the motivation is entirely different
Publishers getting paid a tiny fraction of big tech’s daily profits to publish on a specialized news platform is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. But it is particularly bad when it comes to Facebook. Why?
So there are now three theoretical compensated major tech platforms for publishers to “put their news upon.” There is Google News (not really compensated, except for Google sending you more traffic, but who knows, one day, EU copyright law, etc…), there is Apple News+ (where you actually get paid in real money but not a lot) and there is the now highly theoretical Facebook News We Will Pay You Please Talk About Us Positively Maybe This Will Exist platform.
I think you can see where this is going.
It’s easy to look at this trend of paid aggregation (and not just with big tech, but smaller apps as well) overtaking free aggregation sites/apps and think that this is a trend that is coming from a single place, following a single idea, and looking for the same result - a restructuring of how money is made and publishers profit on the web. But it isn’t that at all. Facebook has very different motivations for floating such an idea than anyone else. Specifically, it has two goals: control and image management.
First: how is giving away money control?
Facebook is a monopoly on social network-based gatekeeping.
You can argue other social networks exist, but not meaningfully. Mastodon and Diaspora exist but they lack a meaningful footprint. Snapchat exists but isn’t really a social network on the same terms. Twitter basically is only still around because of Donald Trump and isn’t a meaningful competitor. Google is a gatekeeper but it works and makes money in entirely different ways. There is only one internet gatekeeper social network and it is Facebook.
When a company reaches a monopoly status, as Facebook has, we can assume that almost every action it is going to take is in pursuit of retaining its position as a monopolist and most of those actions will also be rent-seeking, where it doesn’t have to give any money or goods to anyone else.
So this idea of paying publishers would seem to go against that concept. There’s the image management factor, which we’ll get to, but there’s another reason why this makes sense for them as a monopoly.
They have so much money, anyone who would challenge them would effectively have zero in comparison. I mean on a scale of one to however much money Facebook has to throw around, anything short of billions is basically meaningless. So Facebook can outspend everyone.
Outspending is their only real competitive advantage. Like most companies at monopoly-level, their advantage is mostly in spending a lot of money to push forward incremental advantages, purchase potential competition, acquire talent, oh, and also spending money to just purchase things to keep them away from any future competitor.
Which goes back to what Facebook is doing, how it sees this payout to publishers for their content in a substantially different way than others. For some, paying for content is a product, for others, it’s to increase their offerings of media. But that’s not Facebook.
Facebook isn’t paying for content. Facebook is buying publishers. From Facebook’s perspective, it is buying them pretty cheaply.
That’s what this is all about. It is how Facebook looks at the world and how they operate. They have more money than anyone else in this space could, this is a lever for them to shut down the competition. After all, if they’re paying you to put your content on their social network, why would a publisher go on to a social network that can’t afford to pay them (and might potentially take down Facebook)?
And what of the companies who might rise to bundle subscriptions, or find a good way to pay publishers while presenting news content? What better way to stop them from ever challenging Facebook than raising the payout for participation on Facebook and blocking them out? Later, those terms might change. Perhaps they want some Exclusive Facebook Content, or there’s something restricting publishers in some other way. Publishers who have gone on that long will see this as just a minor thing to add to their workload to keep another predictable source of revenue coming in. Facebook’s algorithms will inevitably influence paid publishers more strongly, as well, so publishers get further bent to the will of The Social Network.
This theoretical Facebook money, if it ever comes, may be there for a while.
But one day Facebook won’t feel threatened anymore and the money will go away, leaving the publishers who became dependent on it as financially and strategically bankrupt as they were forced to become ethically.
It happened before with Mic and many others. It will happen again.
Second: how is this conversation about paying publishers effective image management?
I think it is worth, in this longer format, to take a brief digression into what happy engineering operations look like, because this is of prime concern to Facebook, more so than anyone else.
See tech companies, especially Big Tech companies long past motivating their employees with IPO incentives, have three types of engineering forces.
Unhappy ones that everyone is leaving from and they can’t hire into effectively.
Happy engineers who are off doing whatever the hell they feel like doing on a day-to-day basis and everyone hopes one day this will align with some corporate goal and they’ll create the next Gmail.
Happy engineers who are happy because their interests and the company’s interests align perfectly and everything they do is working towards a shared goal that they and the company both see as virtuous.
Companies with the first type of workforce don’t grow, they don’t do interesting things for the tech press, and eventually die or are purchased by some dumb Ad Tech conglomerate that has no idea what it is doing.
Companies with the second type of workforce are Google. I mean, maybe also others, but mostly Google. This is why everything Google does is so inexplicable; it is a steamroller hauling metric tons of brawling cats bagged up behind it. It’s also why after it removed 20% time it couldn’t actually launch a successful project. Google isn’t a managed company, it is a company that has managers who wave their hands helplessly and have to beg and squabble for engineers to stay on their projects. Without giving formal free reign to its engineers, Google can’t make things anymore and its model is mostly to be avoided.
Which is why Facebook is organized the way it is: like number 3. Accidentally or on purpose, Facebook is designed around a very specific goal that it sees as virtuous: to connect everyone in the world. I am not going to go into why this statement “to connect everyone” is bad or dumb. Maybe Zuckerberg believes it. One thing is for sure though, they built a system where their employees believe it and that belief is what keeps the company focused on building a specific finely-tuned product and retaining and hiring the quality engineers to continue moving forward.
“Making the world more open and connected”
Facebook is very invested in maintaining this alignment between its workforce and its stated goals because (as any good SV book about maintaining a culture will tell you) that’s how you get people to not just show up for work, but further the goals of the management.
Now keeping this alignment up has been a significantly harder task as of late. In the beginning, Facebook staff mostly felt that the news media was pursuing a grudge against them for… you know… killing the news business. But I think that is less and less the case.
Facebook is doing bad things to the world and it is increasingly difficult for anyone—employee or not—to deny this.
One could argue Facebook is also interested in the perceptions of its users. It is! A big chunk of these decisions is about exploiting the narrowness of the news hole and the increasingly transient memory of users by interrupting the endless bad news with good news and making people forget that Facebook did bad things to begin with.
I have no idea if bad news about Facebook has a serious impact on their overall daily users (if you work at Facebook you can tell me), but I suspect the effect is smoothed out over monthly numbers and users cycling between “Facebook bad. Leaving forever!” and “Oh, no, what about baby photos and stalking my ex?” to basically nothing.
Of more concern is the overarching narrative that these problems are creating - that Facebook requires government intervention and regulation. This is a narrative that exists primarily due to coverage of Facebook by the news media. It is a correct narrative that should exist and is 100% right, but also Facebook doesn’t like it and sees it as a threat.
Now Facebook grew up in the Tech Positive News Landscape, where tech organizations were never criticized and everything that came out of their mouths was praised and then at some point if they did a wrong thing they could erase it by releasing a fancy new product.
This narrative of regulating Facebook has arisen in the press and because Facebook’s understanding of the press is grounded in non-critical coverage by tech bloggers it believes that the pursuit of this coverage can be disrupted by announcing a new product and appeasing the news organizations by making it about them.
Announcing a project to pay news organizations to have some sort of placement on Facebook dot com (and who knows, maybe even making it) doesn’t make sense if you look at it traditionally, like a product or standard business decision.
But it does make sense under this consideration of image management, as Facebook believes it works:
The announcement disrupts the media’s negative coverage with positive coverage
The announcement is a public display of Facebook leadership aligning with culture goals to satisfy internal dissension and keep engineering staff both happy and aligned with corporate goals
It is pitched as if it would address the damage to the news media that Facebook is accused of doing and that many (including internal employees) see as a primary cause of our current presidential status.
Now, will this disrupt negative coverage effectively? A little bit. News media get distracted easily and—in part due to Facebook—the attention consumers can pay is small. But it won’t be forever. Facebook is quintessentially evil and will be back on top of the news feed for doing something shitty soon. It is essential, however, that the organization be seen as doing good in the eyes of its own employees. So, this announcement is a way of allowing Facebook employees to feel like their efforts are going to power something good, connective, and capable of being engineered. Mission accomplished!
These primary motivators have nothing to do with building a product, or increasing revenue, or any of the things that normal companies do. That’s why it doesn’t make any sense when you look at it like a normal company. But for the unique beast that is Facebook? It makes sense. It makes a lot of sense.
Yeah, it turns out that floating this idea has done a good job of pushing some of Facebook’s mess out of the news. So expect it to keep coming from Zuck and Company. I’m sure they find that talking about it is even more effective than doing it. Who knows, perhaps one day it will turn into a real product. When that day comes, don’t report it quite so breathlessly. Right now Facebook believes its best strategy for dealing with bad press is to pay off their detractors.
Don’t let them be right.
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