Monthly Archives: October 2014

Could Facebook become to news publishers what Amazon is to book publishers?

I couldn’t have been the only one who, while reading David Carr’s New York Times piece on Facebook’s attempts to woo news publishers into hosting their content on its mobile platform, drew a parallel to Amazon’s relationship with book publishers. It’s easy to forget sometimes that Amazon, before it reached such a dominant position with the bookselling marketplace, was viewed by publishers in the 90s as an opportunity to expand their market beyond brick and mortar bookstores. They never considered the possibility that Amazon would one day drive those physical bookstores into the ground. For me, the most striking resemblance to the two relationships (Amazon vs book publishers and Facebook vs news outlets) came while reading this paragraph in Carr’s piece:

It is a measure of Facebook’s growing power in digital realms that when I called around about those rumors, no one wanted to talk. Well, let me revise that: Many wanted to talk, almost endlessly, about how terrible some of the possible changes would be for producers of original content, but not if I was going to indicate their place of employment … It’s not that Facebook has a reputation for extracting vengeance, so far as I know; it’s just that the company has become the No. 1 source of traffic for many digital publishers.

Sound familiar? This is the same mealy-mouthed not-for-attribution tactic that many book publishers employ when bashing Amazon because they don’t want to risk offending the golden goose. And to be sure, Facebook is becoming a larger and larger golden goose for publishers. Here’s a chart via Business Insider’s Lara O’Reilly showing traffic referrers to BuzzFeed properties over time:

buzzfeed referrers

And this chart, courtesy of GigaOm’s Carmel DeAmicis, shows that Facebook now accounts for up to 20 percent of referral traffic for many websites:

facebook referrers

But while 20 percent is a hefty amount of traffic, that still leaves 80 percent from other sources. In fact, media watchers were posting very similar charts to show Google’s dominance just a few years ago, and now you’re seeing headlines that some publishers are paying less and less attention to SEO. A lot of people go to Facebook every day, but it’s not a single-destination property on the web. Companies still have email, Twitter, Pinterest, and even their homepages to continue marketing their content.

Amazon, on the other hand, has a true choke point. Not only does it have a database of millions of credit cards from its users, but consumers are primed to think of it when they’re looking to purchase a book online. When have you ever thought of visiting a book publisher’s website when seeking out a title? Do you even known who published your five most favorite books? Do you follow any book publishers on Facebook or Twitter? And when it comes to ebooks, Amazon has a 70 percent market share, giving it even more negotiating power to bend book publishers to its will.


So does Facebook have any potential choke points for news companies that it can use to bend them to its will? Perhaps. Here are two of them:

The first is mobile. Unlike with the internet, which wasn’t taken seriously for several years as a potential moneymaker, both large corporations and entrepreneurs latched on to mobile’s importance pretty soon after the debut of the iPhone. No one took mobile more seriously than Facebook, which now has 654 million daily mobile users and generates 66 percent of its revenue from mobile advertising. It seems clear that banner advertising doesn’t work on tiny mobile screens, and Facebook is one of the few games in town that has nailed mobile advertising. News publishers, meanwhile, haven’t even effectively monetized desktop advertising very well. It’s all too easy to imagine a scenario in which Facebook begins luring publishers onto some kind of advertising network by promising generous revenue splits, and then, once it’s lulled them into a state of dependence, begins using that dependence to continue pursuing its own agenda.

The second choke point is the Facebook News Feed itself. Because it’s algorithm-based, it can incentivize different kinds of actions on Facebook. For instance, Facebook could start giving more preference to content uploaded natively to its platform and less preference to links to outside source, thereby rewarding news publishers that choose to host their content on Facebook. As Marcus Wohlsen at Wired posited:

Imagine a publisher posts a YouTube link to Facebook and gets a few “likes” and clicks. Then imagine that same publisher uploads a video to Facebook, and gets a lot more views and “likes.” Maybe it’s a fluke. But over time, a pattern emerges. The videos posted straight to Facebook get watched more. Soon enough, all their videos are going straight to Facebook. Perhaps over time, the process repeats itself for other kinds of content.

We don’t have to imagine it because we’ve already seen it happening. Facebook started showing favoritism to photos uploaded to its own platform over link-based posts years ago. That’s why you saw Facebook page owners start uploading photos and then posting a headline and link to their content, so it could get more visibility. And with Facebook’s recent heavy push into video, we’ve seen the same thing with YouTube. As Todd Wasserman reported at Mashable, the share of YouTube posts on Facebook is declining while Facebook video posts are poised to overtake them in the near future. This is likely because Facebook page owners have noticed they see much more engagement when they upload directly to Facebook.

Facebook isn’t the only social network playing this game. LinkedIn, for instance, used to send truckloads of traffic to it news partners, but after LinkedIn opened up its blogging platform to the public, publishers suddenly saw way less traffic as LinkedIn began favoring its own natively-produced content. “It’s dried up to almost nothing,” a source told BuzzFeed’s Myles Tanzer.

Reading of all these instances of social networks shoring up their user bases to keep as many users on-platform as possible, I couldn’t help but think of the folklore myth of Lorelei. She’s a mermaid who sits atop a cliff and, like the sirens of The Odyssey, lures sailors with her song, causing them to crash into the cliff and hastening their deaths. When news publishers read that Facebook wants to lure them onto its platform, they likely recognized the cliff for what it was. The question now is whether they can resist its song.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.

Infographic shows spikes in Google searches for “voter registration” and “early voting”

Though cable news outlets and DC newspapers like Politico cover politics 365 days a year, the vast majority of Americans only really become intensely interested in an election in its last leg. Only then do they seek out a closer look at who’s running for office and, more important, where they stand. Unsurprisingly, many of them turn to Google to ferret out this information.

For the past few months, my colleagues at Beutler Ink have worked closely with the team at Google Politics & Elections to comb through Google’s extensive search data and surface interesting trends that give key insight into the voting public. For instance, the infographic below shows a sharp spike in interest in recent weeks for both “voter registration” and “early voting.”

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YouTube needs to start worrying about Facebook video

key and peele

On a recent episode of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, the duo produced a skit on the dangers of concussions in football. Shot in a hyper-dramatized, cinematic style, it shows Keegan-Michael Key playing a high school quarterback who’s been sacked by a defensive lineman, resulting in a concussion. Afterward, he tries to rally his teammates for the next play but digresses further and further into a state of complete gibberish and confusion as his brain turns to mush. It’s hilarious.

As Comedy Central has been wont to do lately after a show airs, it not only uploaded the skit to its custom video player, but also to YouTube and directly to its Facebook page (via Facebook’s video player). What happened next should worry the executives at YouTube.

To be clear, the YouTube version, with over 700,000 views, had the largest audience. But the Facebook version, with 200,000 views, is a not-so-distant second, and it represents the massive strides Facebook has made at growing its video offering into a formidable opponent to YouTube.

Just a few short years ago there were basically three kinds of video you encountered on the internet: YouTube, Vimeo, and various custom platforms used by entertainment and news sites. The custom players were often clunky and had limited viral spread. Though some had embed features, allowing one to embed the video on his own website, they weren’t very intuitive. Vimeo has always been a beautiful product and has a hardcore fanbase of documentary and short filmmakers, but it’s a rather niche platform that never seemed to pose much of a threat to YouTube. So for seven or so years, YouTube was the reigning king of online video, with no other company even approaching its viewership numbers.

Facebook’s video player has been available for a few years now, and I remember uploading videos to it back in 2012 or 2013. The tool was glitchy, sometimes taking multiple attempts to upload something. And encountering Facebook video in the newsfeed was a somewhat rare occurrence.

Due to a confluence of events in just the last few months, however, that scenario is much different, and now it’s nearly impossible to scroll through the Facebook newsfeed without seeing video. So what changed?

Well, Facebook obviously began to favor video in its newsfeed algorithm, emphasizing it over text, image, and link content. And once Facebook page owners realized this by viewing their analytics dashboard, they had an incentive to start uploading more video. Facebook also started to auto-play video, making it harder to ignore (and also possibly inflating viewership stats, which I’ll get to in a second). And then lastly we had the Ice Bucket Challenge, the month-long viral campaign to raise money for ALS. Not only did it crowd the newsfeed with videos, it also allowed millions of casual Facebook users to upload video to the social network for the first time.


It also helps that Facebook has, at last count, about 1.2 billion users. And it turns out many of those users are consuming video. The company recently announced that it’s serving 1 billion video views a day. It’s hard to find an apples to apples comparison for YouTube, but back in 2012 YouTube announced it was seeing 4 billion views a day, and we can only assume that number has grown considerably since then. An executive from web analytics company ComScore recently claimed that Facebook video had surpassed YouTube views on desktop, but this should be met with a skeptical eye, since this includes auto-plays, and Facebook auto-plays every single video in the newsfeed regardless if you stop to watch it.

Still, there are enough eyeballs for Facebook that it can now make serious inroads in luring stars off YouTube. Recently it has reached out to some of YouTube’s most famous personalities, offering them higher ad rates and significant advances if they leave YouTube and come to Facebook. It knows that these stars can create a domino effect, leading to other midlist stars trying out the platform. At the very least, if it can get some of these stars to cross-post their videos to their Facebook pages rather than simply embedding links to YouTube (what Comedy Central is currently doing with Key & Peele), then this could become a gateway drug to convince them to start investing more in Facebook and less in YouTube. And as Hameed Yousuf recently pointed out, the way Facebook displays videos uploaded natively vs embedded YouTube links is vastly different; the latter has far less visibility in the newsfeed.

That all being said, Facebook video still has significant weaknesses. For instance, though it works well within Facebook’s ecosystem, it doesn’t get much play outside of Facebook. I can only remember one or two times when I came across a Facebook video embedded on a blog or news site. YouTube is still the default tool for easily embedding video.

But even more important is the fact that it’s incredibly hard to discover Facebook video. Facebook’s internal search functionality sucks, and the site isn’t crawled well by outside search engines. YouTube’s search is amazing, and it’s the second most popular search engine in the world next to Google. And speaking of the G word, it’s the elephant in the room. Because it owns YouTube, it can not only crawl its metadata more efficiently, but it can also give it preference in Google search results. Do a search for “Key & Peele, quarterback” in Google.  The Facebook video doesn’t even show up in the first page of results.

Facebook is now over a decade old. It kills me that it for some reason hasn’t figured out how to provide a valuable search tool, something Twitter developed long ago. It keeps hinting that it will, but it’s forever on the horizon. Look what happens when I try to use its semantic search to search public posts for mentions of Key & Peele:

facebook search

“This search isn’t available yet,” an indication that someday, we don’t know when, but maybe, hopefully, we think there just might be a public search feature. Until that moment arrives, Facebook will always be hindered when it comes to discovery — for its video and any other type of content — a problem that the rest of the open web solved long ago.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.

Why Twitter is such an ideal platform for trolls

twitter troll

Though the term “#GamerGate,”  what can only be described as an amorphous battle over issues ranging from misogyny in the gaming community to “ethics” in gaming journalism, has proliferated across nearly all media platforms, both online and off, most of its intensity and raw anger has been concentrated on Twitter. And that’s not a coincidence. For all that is wonderful about Twitter — and I do love the platform — there are few tools on the internet so conducive to trollery, allowing a small number of individuals to spread mass hate and havoc aimed at increasingly fearful targets.

Slate’s David Auerbach touches on one of the reasons for this: that Twitter’s immediacy and 140 character limit encourages users to quickly dash off barbed tweets that, because of their brevity, lack subtlety and therefore must resort to absolutism.

After cartoonist K. Thor Jensen got much flak for tweeting that all gamers should die, he apologizedand concluded on this wise note: “Hashtag activism is an ineffective way of pursuing those goals. It literally gets you nowhere but pointless arguments with turds like me.” Even Jensen’s attitude that “Ed Champion has always been human shit and should be flushed down a toilet,” however accurate, would probably be phrased a bit more tactfully and substantively anywhere else. Twitter is a verbal minefield that encourages harassment while discouraging productive conversation, bringing out the worst in everyone from Leigh Alexander to Richard Dawkins to Donald Trump (not hard, admittedly).

This is all true, but there are other platforms that allow you to dash off opinions without much thought or effort. To understand why trolls thrive on Twitter you must first consider why they are less effective on other platforms. Facebook, for instance, is a much bigger target in terms of audience yet #GamerGate supporters have had limited effect there. Facebook, unlike Twitter, forces users to use their real names, which at least mutes somewhat the vehemency that can spring forth when you know you won’t be held accountable for your actions. But, perhaps even more important, Facebook has terrible discovery functionality, making it difficult for a swarm of a few dozen trolls to monitor for new mentions of their pet issue and pounce all at once, thereby magnifying their voice. If you’ve tweeted at all about #GamerGate within the last few weeks, chances are you’ve experienced a drive-by barrage of @mentions from Twitter accounts with only a few dozen followers each, many spouting off a few generic pro-GamerGate catchphrases and supportive links. Within minutes, they’re gone, on to swarm another user like a cloud of gnats. After I tweeted a fairly anodyne tweet to a ClickHole article about #GamerGate, for instance, this tweet appeared in my @mention stream:

gamergate tweet

This guy and a few other dozen like him are simply sitting at with #gamergate plugged into the search bar and hitting the refresh icon. Few other networks offer this kind of real-time discoverablity.


Twitter is also a magnet for trolling because it sets all interactions as equal. On Facebook, it’s easy for me to toggle my account so only my friends can comment on my post, and if a vituperative comment does make its way onto my wall, I can delete it. On Twitter, anyone can @reply you, and the @replies appear in reverse chronological order, giving preference to those able to swarm you with the most messages. And you can’t delete a reply on Twitter like you can on Facebook (and virtually every other platform) because the reply exists on the commenter’s profile, not the profile on which he’s commenting. While you can mute or block a user, the initial damage has already been done, and you know that those hateful tweets will continue to exist for others to see even if you can’t.

Of course, trolls also like to hang out in article comment sections and message boards, but article comment sections are relegated to the bottom of articles, skipped over by most users, and easy to ignore. Message boards aren’t visited by the majority of people and are, if moderated well (and the best boards are), adept at weeding out and banning trolls.

All that being said, the attributes that make Twitter a magnet for trolls also make it great for news and entertainment. I love hearing  about a news event that interests me and then utilizing to see real-time commentary and jokes. The reason news out of Ferguson proliferated on Twitter and not Facebook is because it was easy to find and surface tweets from on-the-ground protesters. In some ways, the victims of trolls are the collateral damage of a wonderful real-time conversation ecosystem. The question is whether these benefits outweigh the real damage caused when vulnerable users are threatened with rape and death. And the worst supporters of #GamerGate are making it increasingly difficult for this question to be ignored.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.

Image via Social News Daily