Friday 19 January 2018

Steve Dempsey: Facebook event a feast for developers but delivered little good news for publishers

Stock photo: Getty
Stock photo: Getty
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Facebook held its annual love-in for developers this week in San Jose. The F8 conference is very much targeted at a technical audience, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise to monitor the whole thing from a media and marketing perspective.

There was plenty of impressive technology. There were some outlandish projects that smacked of sci-fi - a system to let people type with their minds and a project to enable people to hear with their skin, for example. But sadly, there wasn't much of interest to the media industry. There was nothing to indicate that Facebook has adopted a more mature approach to its responsibility as a source of news following last year's US election and ahead of this year's elections in France, Germany and the UK.

The conference took place just days after a video of a murder was uploaded to the social network. Steve Stephens shot and killed Robert Godwin Sr. in Cleveland. He filmed the shooting, uploaded it later, and even talked about the shooting on Facebook live after the crime. The video was live on Facebook for over two hours, before it was removed. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg referenced the killing at the event in San Jose but gave no details about how Facebook was addressing the issue. "Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Robert Godwin Sr, and we have a of work and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening."

Facebook can't stop murders from occurring. But it could stop footage of violent crimes from being uploaded and shared on its platform. Let's remember Steve Stephens wasn't the first person to upload or broadcast crimes or shocking events. There's been a rape, a suicide, an assault on a disabled teenager and a man bleeding to death in his car. Having turned anyone with a smartphone into a broadcaster, Facebook now has a responsibility to better moderate the footage its users upload. Maybe the company needs to direct some of its $10bn or so in annual profits into more moderators or to fast-track artificial intelligence that can police the vast amounts of content that users upload.

There were some interesting titbits for the media industry. The ambition for Facebook Messenger is to become the new incarnation of the Yellow Pages, a one stop shop for connecting with businesses and ordering their services and paying bills. Facebook is taking its cues from the Chinese messaging app WeChat in this regard. It even thinks messenger users will take to QR codes.

There were also some vague but frothy presentations about new advertising products that are available to publishers. The social network bigged up its ad offering, saying 84pc of ads on Facebook's audience network are personalised native ads and publishers make seven times more money from these formats than from display ads. They also announced that new native video ads formats were coming soon to the audience network.

Header bidding was also dangled as a carrot for revenue hungry publishers.

Header bidding if you didn't know is where a line of code in the header of a HTML page sends out a bid request to a set of advertisers that bid on the slot. It's an open auction that ensures that the ad with the highest earning potential is shown. Facebook isn't the only tech giant working on header bidding, though; Google and Amazon also have skin in this particular game.

There was no mention of the recent disquiet amongst publishers around instant articles at F8. Major partners like Hearst and the New York Times are no longer using the format, which promised speed, a beautiful reading experience and pretty good commercial terms. Publishers keep 100pc of the revenue made on directly sold ads, and 70pc of the revenue if Facebook fills the ads.

But while it was offering these terms, Facebook was also undermining the whole deal. Last year it changed how its news feed works, prioritising updates from friends and family over news sources. High-quality journalistic content with a social impact pales in comparisons to cat videos. Let's face it, the news can be real a downer sometimes.

And Facebook doesn't like downers. Certainly not at a conference like F8. The focus was understandably on shiny and impressive tech. The main focus was how the camera is becoming an augmented reality tool rather than an image capture tool. This has three applications - all with potential from a media and marketing perspective, it should be said. The first is the ability to display information like digital signage or directions on top of the world around you. The second is the ability to add virtual objects that aren't there at all - think Pokemon Go. And the third is the ability to enhance or alter existing objects. The cute but rather pointless example shown at F8 was adding turrets and a moat to an ordinary house.

But there was plenty more on show at F8. There were integrations with Apple Music and Spotify, a product for business users called Workplace, and a programme called Developer Circles to help the development community. There were internet-beaming drones. And there was a virtual reality platform called Facebook Spaces. It's a VR chatroom where you can hang out with avatars of your friends - though what you'd do with them there was unclear.

It's on this level that the greatest fissure exists between Facebook and the media industry. Facebook is a company that is busy re-imagining the world as it wants it to be. The media reports on the world as it exists. Facebook's ongoing success depends on growing its user-base and developing new technology. Facebook is living in the future. The media lives in the present (yes, you could also say many media outfits are living in the past). You've got to wonder how compatible these two outlooks are.

At one point in his keynote address, Mark Zuckerberg showed off an image of a room that he filled with virtual sweets at the push of a button. "We can fill the room with skittles," he quipped, "because the future is delicious." It may well be, but the present is tough, full of imperfection, suffering and compromise. Zuckerberg might realise this if he paid more attention to the news.

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