Every time Facebook announces a change in its newsfeed algorithm, there’s a certain amount of hand-wringing, especially when it mentions that it’ll be punishing “clickbait headlines.” Many critics often point out that this is a frustratingly opaque term and that it’s possible to have a quality headline that induces clicks. Mathew Ingram complains that “Facebook is a black box. No one really has any clue why the site chooses to show or hide certain content.”
But this time Facebook seems to have given a clearer definition of what they mean by “clickbait.”
When we asked people in an initial survey what type of content they preferred to see in their News Feeds, 80% of the time people preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through. Over time, stories with “click-bait” headlines can drown out content from friends and Pages that people really care about.
So Facebook appears to be forcing publishers to adopt what many already advocate as a golden rule of headline writing, or naming any kind of web copy: Be descriptive. There’s been an infuriating trend recently in headline writing in which the headline is purposefully coy, forcing a user to visit the article before they can discern if it was ever worth visiting in the first place. As any web designer would tell you, this is just bad user experience. What if you were to visit an administrative or government website looking to perform some task but all the links were intentionally vague in an attempt to get you to stay on the site longer? The site’s creators would be mocked as idiots, yet this has become par for the course on many news sites. By adopting this algorithm change, Facebook is forcing the web to adopt better standards, just as Google’s algorithm encourages sites that load faster and have descriptive title tags. If the change results in at least one fewer instance where I need to click on a link just to find out what an article is about, then it will have made my life better.
That’s according to Recode’s Eric Johnson, who estimates that this subscription revenue brings in about $36 million a year in revenue. This is pretty amazing considering almost everything on Twitch is free to watch. It’s performing on par with the New York Times’ digital subscriptions, only it doesn’t rely on a meter that kicks in after 10 views.
What’s especially interesting here: Those subscriptions don’t do a heck of a lot for the people who buy them. Subscribers can skip pre-roll video ads but Twitch viewers have primarily bought them as an act of charity, to support their favorite broadcasters creating, often, days of viewing material every month.
The future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.
Last week, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan created quite a stir within the journalism sphere when he published a rant decrying the tyranny of the editor, describing this gatekeeper between the writer and the public as nothing more than an unnecessary figurehead whose sole purpose is to justify his own existence by marking up otherwise-acceptable writing copy.
The grand traditional print media system—still seen today in top-tier magazines and newspapers—in which each writer’s story is monkeyed with by a succession of ever more senior editors is, on the whole, a waste of time and resources. If you believe that having four editors edit a story produces a better story than having one editor edit a story, I submit that you have the small mind of a middle manager, and should be employed not in journalism but in something more appropriate for your numbers-based outlook on life, like carpet sales. Writing is not a field in which quantity produces quality. Writing is more often an endeavor in which the passion and vision of one person produces a piece of work that must then be defended against an onslaught of competing visions of a series of editors who did not actually write or report the story—but who have some great ideas on how it should be changed.
It also seems to be an increasingly vestigial trait of a bygone era when publishers raked in enough cash to justify such a top-heavy editorial system. I thought of this while reading New York’s profile of Time, Inc, particularly the part where the newly-minted CEO questioned whether he even needed an editor-in-chief:
[Time CEO Joe Ripp] had plans to blow up the Luce culture and was getting resistance. “When I came back, I found an organization where almost 8,000 people could say no. And no one seemed to be able to say yes,” Ripp says. Last summer, he invited Martha Nelson, the editor-in-chief, to his Nantucket home and told her he was thinking of doing away with the editor-in-chief title and creating a chief content officer. In this scenario, magazine editors would no longer report to her. Instead, they would work for the titles’ publishers. It would be a tectonic shift for a company that had all but pioneered the concept of the “church-state” separation of journalism and business. “I could not be a part of that,” Nelson told Ripp.
Back in New York, Ripp invited Pearlstine to breakfast. Pearlstine, who at the time was working at Bloomberg LP as chief content officer, showed none of Nelson’s reservations. “I thought there were so many layers in the editor-in-chief job,” Pearlstine says. “It actually infantilized the editors, and they were being second-guessed on everything from cover shoots to whether the covers had too much yellow in them. I just thought that the editors would be much stronger if they felt really responsible for the brands. If you don’t like what they’re doing, then you change editors.” A few weeks later, Ripp called Pearlstine with an offer. “It took me about five seconds to say yes,” Pearlstine says.
In my article on how the blogging platform Medium is bringing back the web we lost, I describe how Facebook and Twitter, while opening up blog-like tools to millions of casual users, have confined us to a world where our content is beleaguered by so many artificial restrictions:
It makes sense that so many abandoned their blogs for Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. These platforms offered an extended network where your writing actually had the opportunity to be read and commented on. Publishing a blog post on your personal blog sometimes felt like launching it into the ether. Unless you wrote every day it was very difficult to amass an audience. Many bloggers complained of burnout or wrote posts apologizing for lengthy hiatuses. With Facebook and Twitter you had none of that; you could go several days without posting and then have a network of friends and colleagues waiting to engage with future posts.
But by migrating to these platforms, we gave up much of the control of how our content was presented. We couldn’t hyperlink and we couldn’t arrange photos within text. With Twitter we couldn’t even write more than 140 characters, and though this can be a good thing in some respects, many ideas deserve way more space than a sentence or two. Facebook has always had terrible internal search functionality and is pretty much a black box to outside search engines like Google. The blogosphere, while still flourishing in some ways, has seemingly become the domain of professional writers and corporate media companies. It’s rare that I find myself wading into the WordPress.com and Blogspot ghettos where the web’s remaining independent bloggers still reside.
This is why I was heartened to read that Dave Winer has teamed up with Facebook to produce better publishing tools. Winer was one of the original bloggers and an early pioneer in RSS and podcasting. He has been one of the most vocal critics of social media platforms that have continued to restrict their APIs in their extended corporate battles. On his blog, Winer has a list of reasons why he decided to work with Facebook and why this is such an important move for the company.
I don’t think Facebook is hurt by a vibrant competitive market in publishing tools that post to Facebook and post elsewhere, simultaneously. This is where development happens fastest, without the huge installed base to bring along. If this is cut off, that cuts off growth. I think we’ve already been dealing with this, for a long time. I believe if Facebook opens up more, the lights will start coming back on in new content management tools.
So the web and Facebook can co-exist and feed off each others’ growth. Seems like a win-win. Facebook readers get higher fidelity content, more beautiful, easier to read. It’s more effective for authors. And blogs and news organizations can easily publish and maintain their content in two or more places. When you’re liveblogging an event, for example, you can’t manually copy and paste every time something new happens.
By which he’s referring to the hyperbolic headlines that plague viral aggregation sites, many of which just take clips from the cadre of late night hosts from the day previously and post them by 9 a.m. so that they’re flooding our Facebook and Twitter streams by the time we get into work in the morning. The headlines are tiresome because they over promise and under deliver, so much so that I can’t even bring myself to take the five minutes to watch anymore when Jimmy Fallon performs some mildly amusing though instantly forgettable skit with a celebrity.