Facebook and the Personal Press Release

The social network is reviving “Notes,” its dormant blogging feature—but not because blogging itself is making a comeback.

Facebook products never quite die; they just get shelved in ever more distant menus. Such was the case with Notes, the simple blogging software that has lingered in the nether regions of the social network for the last half-decade. You probably haven’t seen a friend’s note in your News Feed since winter 2009, when a meme that encouraged people to list “25 Things About Me” spawned 5 million posts across the service.

You might see one again soon, though, because Facebook seems to be giving Notes a reboot. The company’s director of user operations, John Biesnecker, posted a note on Monday about how hard it is to fly from Austin to San Francisco on his Facebook page. (That is really what his note is about.) The note looks like nothing else on the website: It has a clean, white-space-filled design with extravagantly readable type.

It looks, in other words, like Medium.

“We’re testing an update to Notes to make it easier for people to create and read longer-form stories on Facebook,” a Facebook spokeswoman confirmed.

Some have interpreted this reboot as an attempt by Facebook to bring back blogging, which might be true. (Though from Facebook’s perspective, blogging never really left—it was just absorbed by the social network and its various apps.) Others saw the feature more as an offensive directed at Medium, the blogging startup led by Ev Williams, a Twitter founder. That path makes more sense to me. Here’s why.

When it launched in 2012, Medium resisted the blogging model of Internet writing. Instead of having to keep stoking a reverse-chronological blog, Williams wrote, Medium would let you just toss off a single post. It liberated writers from “the burden of becoming a blogger,” he wrote at the time.

But Medium hasn’t had the uptake it wanted, so, in a redesign earlier this year, the company did an about face. Now it has re-emphasized authorship, and organized posts in the same chronological order that it eschewed at first. The company even calls its new update “Bloggy Medium.”

Through all this, Medium has become known for a certain type of content, a kind of post that seems to cling to the website no matter its current focus. This is the press release written as a personal essay. Often, these come from Bay Area startups themselves, and they even have a certain cyclical-ness: There’s the Our-beautiful-journey-is-just-beginning-style post announcing a company’s funding round, the Our-journey-takes-an-exciting-new-turn one announcing a pivot, and finally Our beautiful journey will continue, announcing a company’s bankruptcy.

But these personal press releases aren’t just coming from tech firms. When Mitt Romney announced he wouldn’t run in the 2016 election, he did it on Medium.

And this is how most non-journalists are using blogging software or even personal websites now, anyway. Few people want to keep a running log of politics, sports, or entertainment stories that interest them, but many people want to keep their friends and acquaintances up on their whereabouts. And why use a blog for that when you can use Facebook? Already, the most popular posts on the social network announce weddings, new jobs, and new children. (Facebook’s News Feed algorithm also seems to prefer these posts.)

These statuses are basically already personal press releases. So, as Facebook thinks of ways to enhance its service, it makes sense to me that it would want these press releases to look fancy. After all, if you can signal your exciting career journey on your Facebook profile, why even have a website (or a Medium account) at all? Your friends are more likely to see that Facebook-native note anyway. Facebook didn’t reply to my request for comment about Notes.

One way of looking at all this, by the way, is that the new Notes feature currently being beta-tested is a throwback. As long-time Facebook users will recall, Notes used to be the only way to post a longer message to Facebook. Until 2011, status messages could only run to 500 characters, so you had to put any longer proclamations into a Note. (It’s hard to remember how different statuses and walls were back then: Only four years earlier, in 2007, Facebook struck the requirement that all status messages had to start with “is.”)

So as Facebook revamps its notes feature, think of wedding announcements, not Gawker. That’s much more likely to be what the Big Blue is aiming for—and the latter is much easier to sell ads against, anyway.