Opinion: Why Facebook’s dual news feed pilot is a nightmare for publishers

Opinion: Why Facebook’s dual news feed pilot is a nightmare for publishers

Facebook recently announced a massive experiment that they’ve rolled out in six countries.

The social network is piloting the idea of splitting its news feed into two, which would effectively result in bucketing of posts from the pages you have ‘liked’ into a separate tab (called ‘Explore’), while updates from your friends and family remain on your primary news feed.

However, anyone can advertise with Facebook to get their content seen in the primary news feed alongside updates from friends and family.

Facebook unilaterally controls what gets seen by users on their primary feed and sells that privileged access for a price, even if that content is not liked by the user.

On the other hand, the content that the user has actually liked is relegated to a secondary tab.

Why would Facebook decide to run such a pilot? What impact would it have on publishers? These are pertinent questions that require some pondering.

Facebook is doing a commendable job in terms of their strategic acquisitions, with two extremely popular platforms in WhatsApp and Instagram sitting in its kitty.

Going by how serious they are about Oculus, their futuristic stance on augmented and virtual reality also warrants appreciation.

But it’s important to analyse a very basic facet of this social network — how content on their platform is performing, especially content that is disseminated by publishers and commercial pages.

Facebook has been grappling with some major issues in recent times.

The organic reach of their content has hit an all-time low, plummeting from 16 percent in 2012 to below 2 percent in 2016.

Posts created by brands and publishers has seen a fall in the engagement rate by over 20 percent since January 2017.

In the midst of all of this, the company has been making far too many changes in algorithms month on month, transitioning from a more personalized news feed to a feed dominated by sponsored posts.

Facebook already prioritizes paid posts.

But if there ever was a raw deal, it’s their latest pilot.

Perhaps with a larger motive to increase their advertising revenue in trying times, Facebook is virtually extorting money from publishers by telling them that if they want to be seen on the primary feed of their users (in a dual news feed world), they need to pay more.

While the pressure of creating quality content is already cut-throat, Facebook is adding another pay-to-play layer to make matters even more difficult for commercial pages, publishers and social media managers by seemingly holding them to ransom.

What happened to making the internet a fair and a neutral medium? If the internet is going to be controlled by a few big giants, it creates a major dent to the very idea of net-neutrality, a complex issue that has undergone its fair share of discussions over the last couple of years.

Ironically, Facebook was in the thick of things back then as well.

Remember the Free Basics fiasco in India? We are seeing shades of that again.

It may seem like I am jumping the gun. Yes, it is only a pilot run after all, and it is only being tested in six countries.

Facebook’s argument is that the move will in fact increase organic reach for publishers because the Explore tab will throw up content from pages that users have not liked as well, but caters to their interests.

The counter question to that is whether users will actively click on the Explore tab to access this content in the first place, when their primary news feed is where they will probably spend most of their time?

Facebook may not end up rolling this out globally at all, especially after the flak it has been receiving ever since it started running the experiment.

But what this goes to show is that there is a fundamental problem in the social network’s mindset.

It is the fundamental problem of trying to assume power by controlling what a certain section of users can do on their platform, and displaying this intent through their various initiatives.

I think the solution here is simply going back to the basics. Surely, good quality content needs to be given precedence over dollars.

The one and only rule of thumb to increase organic post reach is to create good quality content, and there is no reason why that should change.

While the onus is on publishers to a large extent to contribute to the increase of page interactions and link clicks, Facebook should not create new barriers that render quality content irrelevant.

If it does, the very pillar on the basis of which news media should function will lose its value.

The situation will become even more susceptible to conflict of interest if Facebook starts creating content of its own. In the game that is going on, Facebook needs to decide whether it wants to be a player, a linesman or a referee.

How will Facebook deal with its own content versus that from other publishers?

Similarities can be drawn on Facebook’s recent experiment with Google’s treatment of results from shopping related queries in its search results.

Google recently was slapped with a hefty fine by EU as it was found to have abused market dominance by manipulating its search engine results to favour its own comparison shopping service in its search results. There are semblances and there are resemblances.

With Facebook’s content ranking algorithms almost being proprietary black boxes, it may also run the risk of legislators taking a contrarian view to its methodology.

And things do not seem to be moving in a healthy direction to make it easy and financially viable for independent original news and entertainment content creators.

We probably need an entire internet coalition to stand up and refute Facebook’s larger ideologies, let alone a single news feed experiment.