Insights is a new weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE.
For all the hand-wringing over fake news on Facebook and Google, it’s only part of a much broader trend that is too little noticed. Simply put, the two online giants are reshaping our Internet experience in ways we seldom understand, with long-term implications that are even murkier to divine.
For instance, in the past year, the two giants have moved to penalize websites for slow load speeds, more aggressively censor (sometimes wrongly) questionable content, decide who makes money on their ad networks, and more. Those policies are great when they align the interests of consumers, the Big Two, and their advertisers. But it’s less felicitous what happens when those interests collide, as with the fake news issue.
In that case, Facebook profited because people spent more time on the site, sharing fake news stories, commenting, reacting and, not incidentally, seeing more ads. Fake news sites popped up to take advantage of Facebook’s business needs, hooking viewers with specious stories featuring outrageous headlines and few facts. While those sites and Facebook benefitted hugely, neither readers nor the Republic did. Users were often left isolated in a bubble of false news that skewed and distorted their understanding of what is actually happening.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg finally acknowledged what others have been saying (and an ad hoc secret internal task force was already addressing). Now, Zuckerberg is promising to come up with solutions. Google, meanwhile, killed an “in the news” section on its search page that infamously featured as its top story a piece falsely claiming Donald Trump won the popular vote (he won the Electoral College, but appears likely to lose the popular vote by a record margin).
But for all the fake news stink, it’s just part of a long string of changes Google and Facebook have imposed on publishers, creators, readers, and others on the web. The companies’ reach is so vast that nearly everyone else has little choice but to work within their limits. These changes affect how websites make money, how they communicate with their audiences, indeed how they survive. Consider these recent developments:
- Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages and Facebook’s Instant Articles both launched, promising to speed up page latency, i.e., how long it takes for a site to load on your screen. Faster web speeds are definitely a win for twitchy readers. But participating publishers give up (already-scarce) revenue because the Big Two serve the ads themselves and keep a share for themselves.
- Google this month warned advertisers that, by next summer, they no longer will be able to use video ads that use Flash, which has endless security vulnerabilities, on its ad networks. Google already stopped taking Flash-based display ads. Google and Facebook are among several tech platforms forcing advertisers to move to HTML5, a win for consumers on security and other grounds.
- Facebook in October tweaked its news feed to prioritize what ads and content are served up, depending on a user’s connection speed. This comes after previous algorithm shifts this year to emphasize material from friends and family (over that of third-party publishers) and video, especially live video. This has affected what content publishers create, and whether they’re making any money from it.
- Even when the Big Two screw up, they have an impact. Facebook has been apologizing for a series of issues with its metrics tracking video views, with yet another mea culpa just last week. Those metrics problems undercut advertiser confidence and could damage the entire digital ecosystem if advertisers become reluctant to spend online.
- Facebook laid off its news curator team last summer after conservative complaints that some Trump-related stories weren’t being spotlighted. Then the algorithm served up fake stories that embarrassed the company and showed why an algorithm-only approach isn’t the best solution either.
- Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) has been erratic when enforcing policies on banned content such as hate speech, revenge porn, and support for terrorist organizations. In March, it issued a clarification but questions still remain about what content can get seen. The clarification was needed to prevent censorship of images, such as those of nursing mothers or mastectomy scars, now explicitly exempted from bans. What’s in and what’s out under the Facebook (and Twitter) guidelines will, however, affect what hundreds of millions of people may see. And Facebook continues to struggle with wrong-headed content bans.
As Zuckerberg continues to resist the transformation of his tech company into a dominant media platform, the reality is that both Facebook and Google are substantially reshaping our more-or-less-shared reality.
Like that tree falling in the empty forest, if you can’t find something through a Google search, does it actually exist? And Facebook’s algorithmic content decisions will continue to shape what we see, even as policies and programs from both companies reshape our broader experience of the Internet.
Most of these changes benefit the companies, their advertisers, and their billions of customers, a win all the way around. But not all their policies do, as demonstrated with the fake news mess.
How do we make such immensely powerful and subtly, relentlessly influential companies serve the public good, even as they continue to reap vast profits? It will be an essential question for the future of our media consumption, the shape of the Internet, and our understanding of the broader world around us.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE, the premier app building company that houses all of your content in one place for any device, and monetizes it automatically with their built in programmatic video advertising platform.