Facebook's page view explosion in the last months of 2009 -- plus new evidence that it is becoming the major driver of news -- has some analysts wondering whether the site is taking over Google News and personalized Google Reader accounts as America's leading information hub. To me the issue boils down to a question: should we get our news from our friends, or from the news?
Surely, the answer for most of us is: both. I visit the New York Times' homepage and Google News and blogs, and I also follow the URLs in friends' tweets and email alerts to articles. But I never would have expected that Facebook would actually supplant Google as the premier driver of stories on the Web. It turns out that's exactly what is happening:
Hitwise analyst Heather Hopkins reports that in the last week of January, Google Reader accounted for only .01% of visits to news and media Web sites and Google News pushed only 1.39% of the category's traffic. Meanwhile, in just the last six months, the share of traffic going to media sites from Facebook has doubled to 3.52%. Overall, including search result traffic, Facebook has become the fourth largest source of traffic for media, behind Google, Yahoo and MSN.*
Does this mean that Facebook is supplanting Google? Well, no. Google owns the online ad market, commanding a quarter of all traffic and $22 billion in online ad revenue. Facebook's ad strategy is burgeoning, but its 2009 revenue totals were around $400 million -- which is a little more than a dollar for every Facebook user.
But the emergence of Facebook as a real driver of news stories tells us something important about how news works. Getting our news from our friends is nothing new. It's as old as the concept of neighborhood gossip. But if Hitwise analytics are capturing a true trend in media, and the share of Facebook outbound links really doubled in the last six months, it paints the picture of an increasingly nichefied world of news readers. Friends are reading what their friends are reading, who are reading what their friends are reading, and so on. It presages the deterioration of top-down news, and the rise of news-reading groups whose news sources and opinions become a centripetal, self-perpetuated cycle of information -- or disinformation.
In his 2008 book True Enough, Farhad Manjoo explains that the fragmentation of the Internet allows different groups to create, and live in, their own "split" realities. This is especially true in politics, where increasingly facts can't find us anymore--instead, we find our own political "facts" in the corners of the Internet, like our friends' Facebook feeds, that reflect our beliefs. Facebook is a unique and wonderful artery to our friends' lives and interests. But if we define our reading by our friends' libraries, we will all find what we already expected rather than what we need to know.
*As the Atlantic Wire's John Hudson explained, even these numbers underestimate Facebook's dominance. With 193 billion page views in December 2009, Facebook was almost as trafficked as Yahoo and MSN combined.