At a meeting with media executives discussing a series of changes to the platform in Sydney, Australia, last week, Facebook’s head of news partnerships Campbell Brown finally said what everybody already knew. “Mark [Zuckerberg] doesn’t care about publishers,” she told the meeting participants. Nevertheless, she said, her boss “is giving me a lot of leeway and concessions to make these changes.” Without Facebook’s help, she said, “the reverse looks like I’ll be holding your hands with your dying business like in a hospice.” (The quotes were originally reported in the Australian.)
Grim — but also accurate. For several years beginning around 2011, Facebook’s News Feed served as a firehose of traffic, where one widely shared link could result in astronomical attention. Many websites tried to turn Facebook optimization into a science and chased those clicks for longer than they maybe should have, drastically pivoting (to things like video) in the hopes of appeasing the Facebook gods. The ebbing of News Feed traffic has widespread consequences for the news business. As Nieman Lab highlights, Brown also reportedly said this:
We are not interested in talking to you about your traffic and referrals any more. That is the old world and there is no going back.
Great! That old world absolutely sucked and made the internet ecosystem a discernibly worse place.
Sometime around 2012, the ecology of digital publishing underwent an epochal shift: Facebook overtook Google as the top traffic source on the web. Prior to Facebook, the best way to reliably obtain traffic was through search-engine optimization, formatting web content so that it would rank highly within search engines. SEO is a sort of guessing game, a digital Jeopardy! in which the person creating web content tries to think of the query that will get users to their web content. It’s why an article might be headlined “What Time Is the Super Bowl?” instead of “The Super Bowl Is Coming Up Soon.”
Facebook’s rising dominance as a referrer led to a different type of work, content that was optimized for social media. The key to a good piece of Facebook-optimized content was that it was emotionally intelligent, often in an exaggerated manner. It wasn’t just 21 pictures that will make you feel good; it’s “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” A celebrity didn’t just wear a ritzy dress, they wore a ritzy dress “and I Can’t Even.”
Socially optimized content was about getting a rise out of people, tapping into some part of their lizard brain that made them react to information after consuming it. It was often “relatable” or “me irl” or aspirational or anger-inducing. The content needed to be reflective of the reader, so that they would share it with their friends and followers. And oftentimes, when one outlet hit on an ingenious, duplicable formula (cooking videos shot from overhead, for instance), it often meant that similarly formatted content would soon appear from other publishers.
The problem with social-optimized content is that its overt, eerie familiarity drapes a kind of lowest-common-denominator cynicism across the internet. Social media tends to favor positive sentiment over negative, and exaggeration over subtlety. When a writer claims to be “scrEAMING” at the newest Marvel trailer in the headline, are they saying that because they really are, or because they want the reader to think that they are so that the reader will share on Facebook? It’s not a crime to write an enthusiastic headline, but when every headline you see is yelling at you in one way or another — and making outsized claims about the emotional state of its author or readers — it becomes difficult to trust the claimed sentiments of writers. At the very least, it’s extremely annoying.
SEO content, on the other hand, dispenses with the emotional in favor of the mechanical. It can be stilted and awkward — but it’s more honest and transparent. When a writer pads their article for the trailer of the newest Marvel movie with search keywords — data like the cast and crew and opening date — they’re optimizing for the Google robots. But they’re also providing genuinely useful information. Social content was about manipulating people into clicking, sharing, and posting. SEO is about manipulating robots into treating your content as the best example of sought-after information.
SEO is far from a perfect assignment editor for the web. Scammers and charlatans have been trying to abuse it for years, and it can create spectacles as ghoulish and cynical as social-optimized posts when news happens. A particularly gross instance happened in the hours after news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide broke, when Newsweek pumped out individual Google-optimized posts about each of his family members and former partners. Tasteless? Absolutely. But it is also fulfilling a direct reader request with dispassionate information instead of hyperbole. The mechanics of SEO are clear, far more than the mechanics of human emotions.
For better or worse, SEO forced publishers to focus on providing their readers with relevant information. Social optimization for platforms like Facebook forced publishers to make their content evocative, incendiary, and interactive. Social content wasn’t about transmitting information as much as it was about helping people perform their identities online. It put a premium on heavy-handedness and polarization. It didn’t just need to say something, it needed to help the sharer say something too.
And it was difficult for any publisher — major publication or one-man blog — to resist, given how much traffic the Facebook system brought to others. Now, by Facebook’s own account, the valve to the firehose has been closed. Great. Use it to build brand awareness or whatever, but otherwise, it’s time to recalibrate and leave the reliance on Facebook as a traffic source behind.