This past Thursday, Glamour magazine and Facebook announced that they were partnering to host a series of town halls for women about the 2016 election. Content and video from the discussions will be live streamed and shared on both the social network and the magazine’s platforms. The topic of each town hall will be informed by Facebook, which will mine its own data to determine which political issues women are discussing most.
Facebook collaborating with an editorial partner is no longer novel in and of itself, but the details of this particular partnership are significant: This time, the social network isn’t just serving as a place for readers to find content, and publishers to distribute it. It’s also playing an active role in helping create it.
The structure of the partnership between Glamour and Facebook speaks to how integral audience data has become in helping publications determine their editorial strategies. On the one hand, easier access to audience interests, reactions, and opinions has provided the opportunity for a freer exchange between publications and their readers. But on the other hand, it also increases the temptation for publications to pander by focusing to a fault on topics most likely to generate views and traffic.
One such example of the data-mining that will be used can be seen in a straightforward chart that Facebook previously created about the residents of Iowa and the issues they mentioned most frequently:
Such a technique doesn’t seem to differ much from that of Facebook’s existing “Trending Topics” section, which highlights the subjects on the site that are getting the most buzz.
But something about this Glamour arrangement—about a publication so overtly using data from Facebook to shape its content—feels odd. While this partnership could foster relevant, compelling conversations, a more cynical view would be that it’s the perfect recipe for the ultimate click bait: plucking content directly from reader’s brains, and then presenting it back to them on a silver platter.
To be fair, in this case, Facebook’s data mining appears to be just a way to land on topics of discussion for the town halls, not a means of shaping the actual arguments and information presented. And it makes sense for Glamour to steer these events towards areas that readers find particularly compelling. Still, it feels like the very cusp of a slippery slope.
With publications receiving constant feedback on their content in the form of audience analytics, the balance between addressing current reader interests and starting new conversations can be a tough one to pull off. Ezra Klein recently captured this challenge in a piece he wrote for Vox following the departure of the editor Franklin Foer from The New Republic:
Behind this fight is a deeper tension in digital journalism: The pressure for convergence is strong. We feel it at Vox, and sometimes give into it. It’s easy to see which stories are resonating with readers. It’s obvious that John Oliver videos do big numbers. And that’s fine. Right now, almost all successful digital publications are partially built on internet best practices and partially built on that publication’s particular obsessions, ideas, and attitude. Digital publications need to be smart about their mix of what everyone else does and what no one else does.
But what made the New Republic and its peer policy magazines so great was how restlessly, relentlessly idiosyncratic they were—that's how they drove new ideologies and new ideas to the fore. They were worse at covering policy than their digital successors because they were slower and more distant from the news cycle, but they were probably better at thinking.
Part of this was because they simply cared less what the audience thought—they saw their role as telling their audience what to think, and they expected a readership in the low six or high five figures, not the mid-eight figures. That gave them a freedom to truly be themselves that more mass-market publications don't have.
The Glamour town halls don’t come from this same place of independent thought. In a way, their structure represents the risk that much of digital journalism faces: When audience desires are integrated so fully into the creation of content itself, stories may become more democratized, but they also run the risk of losing originality, or of challenging readers’ assumptions.
Last week, Anna Wiener made a similar point in The Atlantic in a piece about Suck.com, a web magazine that came of age in a moment when traffic hadn’t yet taken on the prominent role it has now. “My interest comes from a suspicion that Suck represents the web at its best, when an independent online publication could control its own narrative,” she wrote. “Suck wasn’t trying to game its analytics, or optimize for anything, or bait-and-switch its readers for clicks.”
It, like the earlier version of The New Republic that Klein describes, wasn’t beholden to its audience in the way that most digital publications are now. Because of this freedom, it could offer unique viewpoints, and shed light on subjects or angles that few people were already talking about or sharing. While the ongoing conversation between publications and readers that today’s platforms enable is invaluable, the focus on data can fuel a feedback loop that leaves little room for new perspectives.