The Facebook Effect on the News

Social networks are the new front page and homepage for news. But on Facebook, it's not the "news" that readers come to see or click to leave.

Around this time last year, I considered writing a story claiming that Facebook and Twitter were the new "homepages" for news on the Internet. It was going to be about how, if the Web had ripped out the article pages of newspapers and magazines and scattered them to the wind, Facebook and Twitter had pinched them from the air and stacked them in easy, vertical columns that were becoming our new first-look sources for the day's events.

A year ago, social networks are the new homepage seemed like an (almost) original observation. Today, it's just a boring fact.

In the last twelve months, traffic from home pages has dropped significantly across many websites while social media's share of clicks has more than doubled, according to a 2013 review of the BuzzFeed Partner Network, a conglomeration of popular sites including BuzzFeed, the New York Times, and Thought Catalog.

Facebook, in particular, has opened the spigot, with its outbound links to publishers growing from 62 million to 161 million in 2013. Two years ago, Facebook and Google were equal powers in sending clicks to the BuzzFeed network's sites. Today Facebook sends 3.5X more traffic.

That Facebook is a prodigious firehose is clear. The question is: What sort of stories get the water?

The Atlantic's experience is indicative, but limited: A few months ago, I was talking with a colleague about how our most successful stories on Facebook often aren't news-pegged—that is, they're not about recent or upcoming events. Instead, they are what journalists call "evergreen" stories—essays about diets, Millennials, and happiness, studies on coffee and decision-making, or beautiful photos. This was around the time that Upworthy—notable purveyor of sugary-sweet videos and "you won't believe what happens next" headlines—was riding Facebook's rocket ship, not as a "news" organization, but as a savvy scavenger and marketeer.

Facebook's News Feed, a homepage built by our friends and organized by our clicks and likes, isn't really a "news" feed. It's an entertainment portal for stories that remind us of our lives and offer something like an emotional popper. In fact, news readers self-identify as a minority on Facebook: Fewer than half ever read "news" on the site, according to a 2013 Pew study, and just 10 percent of them go to Facebook to get the news on purpose, as opposed, say, being assaulted by a breaking news event when you're just scanning baby photos.

To see this more clearly, let's compare the BuzzFeed network's most viral stories—i.e.: the stories that go biggest on Facebook—to the top stories on Twitter and the most-searched stories. First, here are the top stories on Twitter in 2013. It's a blend of news, like terrorist attacks and music shows, and evergreen silliness with Ryan Gosling and Kim Kardashian. 

Top Stories on Twitter 2013

Now here are the stories with the most search traffic in 2013. Just about all of them arguably count as "news." They describe recent events, whether it's a bikini sighting, terrorist explosion, or celebrity death. Even "Take Home This Human-Faced Dog" at #11 turns out to be about an newly up-for-adoption dog (with an undeniably human face). 

Most-Searched Stories 2013

Twitter is for news—ish. Search is for news—full stop. But Facebook?

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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