On Facebook, every serious media company must maintain a presence. The same is true for advocacy organizations, activists, and other groups that depend on reaching an audience. These institutions undergo a more conscious optimization process than individual users. They hire consultants and train social-media managers. They talk with Facebook and read research on what’s working. They monitor CrowdTangle for things that many people are sharing. They know that their survival depends, in large part, on generating stories that can be popular on Facebook and then getting them in front of large audiences of people who will share these stories.
It’s common practice to “swap” links between different media outlets. Sometimes these relationships are formalized. Other times they are more just friends or former colleagues helping each other out to pop a story.
Each and every player in this increasingly large part of the media world has to be intimately familiar with every facet of Facebook in order to develop an algorithmic intuition about which stories might get shares with what headline. Everyone monitors everyone else for breakthroughs in style, art, story type, and anything else that could provide a scrap of advantage.
And of course, the same social-media people who work for media companies can move over to industry as well, where there is a whole other set of tools and optimizations. Because as in the old adage that every company is a media company, every company is also a social media company.
If normal users are evolving creatures in a well-resourced environment, the media (and other) organizations are like bacteria under brutal selective pressure. They are evolving, transmuting, swapping DNA at tremendous speed. And of course if regular users come up with something, they adopt it immediately.
This memetic competition and coevolution is one reason the media landscape is so dizzying. Every single node in the network is changing constantly, which generates unpredictable effects within the larger entity.
And there is even more optimization going on within each media organization. Writers and video makers—journalists and other content producers—are also learning as regular users themselves and with the best practices that filter down to them officially or unofficially from the social-media people.
This is to say nothing of scammers, alt-right memelords, hoaxers, Russian agents, or anything of the sort. This is just your base-case Facebook.
It exists in this precise configuration because of decisions that Facebook has made. In particular, the design of the site flattens brands out. People see things “on Facebook,” as opposed to in The Atlantic or on Fox News. Each post looks similar. The feed doesn’t differentiate between news and news-like content.
The unit of distribution for media used to be a bundle: magazine, newspaper, television show, etc. The internet tore that apart. The URL became the atomic unit, but there was a central place that editors controlled called a home page (or, as we once envisioned, an app). Facebook ripped those apart, too, and few home pages have real distribution power (though they’re important for other reasons). The ease of digital publishing, this great unbundling, and Facebook’s design have all flattened the distance between what used to be called news or journalism and everything else.