Tuesday 22 May 2018

Adrian Weckler: #DeleteFacebook: a media myth

Technology

Stock image
Stock image
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

So much for #DeleteFacebook.

The social media giant released its financial results last week.

We all wanted to know how many users it lost over the global scandals gripping the company for months.

Imagine our surprise when it emerged that Facebook's user base grew in the last three months. And by almost the exact same amount it had the three months before that.

It turns out that outrage on Twitter and from traditional media companies on how Facebook connects your data to advertisers, apps and even political consultants wasn't enough to make ordinary people rethink their use of the service. It also wasn't enough to stop new people signing up to the service.

They basically didn't care. Or if they did, it was nowhere near enough to affect their usage inclinations.

"That's too cynical," I hear you say. "People may have been reassured by Facebook's announced changes around app API access."

Ah come on. Get real - 95pc of people have no idea what an API is.

And even after weeks of explaining the changes that Facebook has made, most people still have no real handle as to how the whole thing actually works. Other than that Facebook's core business model - assembling your personal profile as an ad magnet - is basically unchanged from before the controversy.

So have media companies been wrong to focus so prominently on Facebook over almost any other tech firm in the last six months?

Maybe not. The firm has, as its founder and chief executive says, made big mistakes in not tightening up its own platform for fake news and media manipulation.

And with two billion users (and some two million Irish users), Facebook is now a quasi-utility for a great many of the world's population.

Indeed, it's the only place some people will see news. As such, Facebook now deserves to be under much greater scrutiny than before.

But the situation is complicated by the animosity that traditional media companies have developed towards the social platform.

Many publishers are torn between their natural instincts to treat Facebook like any other story and bitterness over Facebook as a competitive rival.

This is understandable, if unfortunate. On one hand, Facebook (together with Google) has sucked most of the online advertising away from what traditional media companies hoped they could count on. For this, media firms are increasingly angry. That anger probably shows in the intensity of coverage that Facebook's failings get and particularly in the columns and comment pieces that accompany the news stories.

On the other hand, media companies can't quite let Facebook go from their own plans. Some of the harshest critics of Facebook are also its most dedicated users for distribution. Channel 4, for example, is one of the strongest performers on Facebook for virality, having twigged that a formula of 'gotcha' videos with reporters doorstepping unpopular figures delights many on social media.

As such, it punches well above its weight on Facebook, often matching much bigger media organisations such as the BBC or The New York Times for reach.

In Ireland, Independent.ie - which carries articles from the Sunday Independent and the Irish Independent, as well as generating much of its own original content - is another star performer on Facebook.

Last week, an analysis by the UK research company Indivigital showed that Independent.ie sits fifth among global media brands for its level of 'engagement' on Facebook, meaning the degree to which Independent.ie posts are shared, discussed and generally consumed on Facebook.

That's quite a stellar achievement for the Irish brand (and editors such as Brian O'Reilly and Fionnuala O'Leary who ultimately steer the online social media strategy), especially considering that the media brands immediately above and below it include Buzzfeed, CBS and the Daily Mail.

Rightly, the ranking is being assessed as such, indicating that the Independent.ie team has a very developed sense of what a Facebook-using audience is interested in seeing, sharing and discussing.

But it also highlights the challenge that a company such as Independent News & Media, the biggest publishing group in the country, has in figuring out its approach to Facebook.

Do we regard the social media outfit as a parasite, draining resources away from verified publications such as our own? Or is it a distribution platform that, for us, can substantially extend the reach and relevance of the group's output, especially to audiences who appear unlikely to ever again buy a physical newspaper?

As anyone who works in a professional media company will tell you, the answer to this question is complicated and cannot be separated from self-interest.

If you believe Facebook's ad juggernaut shrinks your potential digital revenue into minuscule proportions, it can suddenly seem like a malevolent force that's bad for society.

Right now, that's probably the reaction of 80pc of traditional media companies, most of which haven't yet come up with a compelling online business model to match Facebook or Google.

Media animosity aside, Facebook is not out of the woods, by any means. It still faces significant threats in the form of regulatory moves, especially here in Europe.

That could, down the line, mean some sort of enforced functional separation between Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

This would cost the company time and money, even if it might ironically entrench the company's services against newcomers.

But it's now clear that there is nothing like the kind of popular disaffection with the social media network that has been portrayed by some.

We journalists, in particular, ignore this reality at our peril.

Sunday Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business