Facebook isn’t where you go for now, so Facebook isn’t as good a home for socially-targeted, time-aware ads—but it wants to be. So it had to remind media companies who actually commands the reading hordes.
Maybe that reminder looked like a 69 percent jump in traffic.
It sure felt that way to publishers, to whom the sudden increase was startling. Their—our—initial response was something like: Huh. And then: Wow. Until, finally: How do we make this even bigger?
Enter Upworthy. Simultaneous to this traffic upheaval, an entire vocabulary and syntax for headlines that people click and share—and oh, boy, do they click and share—had presented itself on the social web. For publishers trying to grab more traffic from Facebook, the path became clear. Borrow, adapt, employ the Upworthy style post haste. Assure readers your content was nothing but wondtacular. And so began the wondtacularization.
Our mature social world
What does this mean if you’re a standard web news reader? No one really knows. A Facebook-friendlier news ecosystem might lead to headlines that promise more emotional return. But how sustainable is this? Can news organizations keep promising you that their content is not only wondtacular but also, actually, wondtacular-er? Does adjective creep in headlines exist—and, if so, how can it be fought?
And regardless of those large, ecosystem questions: Is this explosion of traffic good for news organizations? We can again only say: Maybe. It’s good for them as long as they’re able to sell ads against it. But they shouldn’t become dependent on it.
Facebook has toyed with its algorithm before. In the fall of 2011, for example, it encouraged news organizations to build “social readers” for their content. Those went great—news organizations like the Washington Post raked in traffic—until, on one day, the engineers adjusted the News Feed algorithm again, and the application’s daily active users plunged from over four million to just about zero.
Here’s what that looked like in a chart:
This also happened with Facebook apps. For a year or so, Facebook apps were what you did on Facebook. Companies sprung up around the geyser of free user attention. Facebook has such a massive user base that its can create independent companies that depend on it just by giving traffic away. The company Zynga went public on the strength of those free users, until it crashed on their disappearance.
It will be up to news organizations not to make the same mistake.
In the past year, Facebook’s anti-Twitter tactics have reverberated across the site. Its “subscribers” feature was renamed “followers”; it added a verified checkmark next to its celebrity users; it adopted a way of displaying related news stories that mirrors Twitter’s. Facebook is even experimenting with a trending topics section. The larger social network seems to be altering the entire fabric of its site to fight the newer, smaller one.