While it might not be quite the Network moment we’re in desperate need of from someone in a position to really change things, a rant posted to by Mike Hudack, Facebook’s director of project management, has inspired an important debate among those concerned about our increasingly listicle-addled media climate. Could this be the first step toward the internet behemoth gaining self-awareness?
“Our nation’s newspapers have, with the exception of The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal been almost entirely hollowed out. They are ghosts in a shell,” he wroted in a broad dismissal of news media that takes shots at both print and television news. “More young Americans get their news from The Daily Show than from Brokaw’s replacement. Can you even name Brokaw’s replacement? I don’t think I can.”
The internet might have served as a bulwark against the flood of inconsequence, he wrote, and it had the promise of offering salvation, but we’ve mostly failed there as well. “We could have gotten it in BuzzFeed, but it turns out that BuzzFeed’s homepage is like CNN’s but only more so. Listicles of the ’28 young couples you know’ replace the kidnapped white girl. Same thing, different demographics.”
VICE, he rather humorously and astutely pointed out, is one media company that often gets the spirit of hard journalism he wants right, but we’re actually just congratulating them for showing up to the job in the first place.
“In between the salacious articles about Atlanta strip clubs we get the occasional real reporting from North Korea or Donetsk. We celebrate these acts of journalistic bravery specifically because they are today so rare. VICE is so gonzo that it’s willing to do real journalism in actually dangerous areas! VICE is the savior of news!”
“It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.”
If only someone in a position to do so were available!
As many people who’ve responded have pointed out, all of this is somewhat ironic coming from an executive at Facebook, which is one of, if not the main culprits in the viralization and diminutivization of hard news.
“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified,” The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal commented on the post. “I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.”
“Sorry, but Facebook is why BuzzFeed is the way it is,” Gawker’s Sam Biddle added.
Vox, who took a sizable chunk of Hudack’s criticism for posting a highly shareable piece about how to better wash your jeans, responded as well. “But for better or for worse, traffic on the internet right now is all about Facebook sharing behavior,” Matthew Ygelsias wrote. “And here’s a key point. Facebook doesn’t work like Twitter. On Twitter if you share something, your followers see it. On Facebook, what is seen is driven by an algorithm that Facebook controls — if they wanted to promote more hard news they could do it.”
That’s the reason why sites like Vox, who publish much more in-depth, serious pieces, have to resort to ones like this curiosity from Yglesias the other day criticizing a high school student who asked Joe Biden to the prom for not accurately leveraging her brand potential. It’s why an otherwise often brilliant site like the Atlantic has to do stories about teenagers maybe being suspended from school for yearbook jokes: These types of stories are priced to sell on Facebook. And with Facebook having such a huge influence on what the average reader consumes, it behooves sites to appeal to them, if not downright attempt to game the system, like Buzzfeed have done so well.
Facebook certainly didn’t invent the idea of fluffy, pointless drivel. “Newspapers — including in the golden age you reference above — have always had their share of soft news and fluffy stories,” Ezra Klein chimes in. “There’s always been celebrity news and recipes and fashion tips and cats in trees and cartoons. But even if those stories were read most they were noticed least because they didn’t make it onto the front page.”
Facebook is now the frontpage of the world. While I’m not buying the argument that if they tweaked their algorithms to give a higher priority to hard news that all of a sudden media everywhere would wash their hands of bullshit listicles and pointlessly viral nothingness, roll up our sleeves, and get back to the people’s work, we could do with a lot fewer dying squirrels on the front lawn, especially in the midst of all this dying media.
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[Featured image via Reuters]
>> Luke O’Neil is a journalist and blogger in Boston. Follow him on Twitter (@lukeoneil47).
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