Political Education

Facebook is the Borg

“We are the Borg. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.

– the Borg

 For those of you who haven’t seen Star Trek: The Next Generation (shame on you!), the Borg is a fictional alien race made up of a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms forced into functioning as drones in a hive mind called the Collective. The aggressive tactic of assimilation employed by the Borg in their pursuit of “achieving perfection” is strangely akin to Facebook’s recent additions to its platform, and its public announcement that it wants to make the experience of consuming content online more seamless. The implementation of certain recent features (native video, and most recently, Instant Articles) may enable the company to subsume the entire publishing industry in its pursuit of a perfected experience of consuming content online.

Take a glance at the terrain of the web today, and there is no doubt that much of it has been colonized by social media. People no longer access online content directly from the source. Instead, we allow social media sites to decide what content is most relevant and important, and lead us to it. The web is inundated with useful and useless information presented in a wide, and ever-changing variety of different mediums. While many publishers have been left in the dust trying to hold on to readers that yearn for a digital experience optimized for new media, Facebook has emerged as powerhouse of multimedia competence: particularly in the smartphone market and its “shift to video.” At the beginning of this year native video content hosted by Facebook was fully optimized for its platform, making it incredibly popular, while embedded videos felt unnatural and out of place. Before the release of native video, Facebook announced that created new tools for “publishers.” Upon the release of native video, Facebook posted advice about “creating video for Facebook,” targeted specifically at “creators.” There was no mention of “publishers,” which naturally raised concerns about Facebook’s changing attitudes toward the media that it had previously partnered with. Concerns became even more serious around March when it was reported that Facebook was in talks with several media companies to discuss hosting their content on Facebook’s platform, eliminating the need to make users click a link to access the content on an external site.

Last week, Facebook launched Instant Articles, its native publishing platform. An elite list of launch partners (including The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel Online, and Bild) will be allowed to sell their own ads on the service, and brand their content with customizaeble typeface, color, and layout. And all of the content will be hosted by Facebook. The design for Instant Articles is undeniably stunning. They will allow for full-bleed videos to be embedded in articles, and features like audio captions and the ability to interact with images. Facebook evidently hopes to improve user’s “engagement” with content, encouraging them to spend more time on Facebook and drive revenue. The Instant Articles launch partners and other early adopter publishers will without a doubt benefit significantly from the use of Facebook’s publishing platform, but many publishing companies do not have the resources needed in order to consistently produce multimedia content that users can actively engage with. The publishing industry already relies heavily on Facebook–who solely generates 25% of their referral traffic. The dire state of the publishing industry makes it alarmingly easy to believe that every major news organization and magazine could buy into the platform. If this were to happen and Facebook decided to revoke the ability for publishers to sell their own ads, it would own the entire publishing industry without ever buying it.

While writing this, I was acutely aware of an apocalyptic tone that runs throughout the article. It was honestly unnerving, so I made an attempt to look for a less bleak view of the potential outcome of this situation. Most of the articles I found on the subject identified the launch of Instant Articles as an important but inevitable turning point that will completely change the publishing industry in some way. I found one article titled “Relax, the rumored Facebook-NYT deal is probably good for readers and journalism.” The arguments suggesting that Instant Articles will benefit journalism presented in the article seem irrelevant, sidestepping around the truly concerning potential effects of Facebook’s native publisher. I try my best to fully understand the different sides of a story, but I couldn’t shake the fact that none of the arguments in this article seemed to deal with the serious implications of Facebook’s native publisher on the industry as a whole–particularly smaller publishers with fewer staff and regular users. Maybe I’m too cynical. Perhaps I’m overestimating the severity of how publishers might be affected. Maybe I’m not giving the author enough credit. Then I reached the end of the article:

“Disclosure: Vox Media, the parent company of Vox.com, is involved in a collaboration with Facebook to develop video content.”

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