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Should News Sites Make a ‘Faustian Bargain’ With Facebook?

Yahoo Tech

Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Reuters)

According to a March 23 report in the New York Times, Facebook is working with a number of media outlets –– including BuzzFeed, National Geographic, and the Times itself –– on a deal that would see those outlets publish news and other content directly on the social platform instead of just linking out to stories on their own websites. 

If you follow any journalists on Twitter, you may have seen the term “Faustian bargain" used more than once to describe this arrangement. Faust, of course, was a legendary German scholar — immortalized in a play by Goethe — who was dissatisfied with his life and wound up making a deal with the devil: unlimited wealth, fame, and knowledge in return for his immortal soul.

That analogy might be overstating the downside of Facebook’s deal just a tad. But the rumored partnership is definitely a double-edged sword, and media companies shouldn’t buy in without considering both the upside and the consequences.

For a media outlet, the benefits of publishing direct to Facebook are obvious: By doing so, they get strategic access to Facebook’s more than 1 billion active members, some of whom spend hours every day on the site. That kind of audience reach is like the Holy Grail for publishers, most of whom are lucky if their readers spend more than a few minutes on their site at a time.

In addition to reach, it appears that Facebook is also offering media outlets the ability to have their content appear more quickly. Loading external sites from Facebook can apparently take so much time that readers become frustrated and don’t click those links again. Facebook wants to prevent that from happening by hosting the articles within the app itself.

Finally, Facebook can also offer the power of its news-feed algorithm — and this is where the company’s appealing offer starts to look a lot more like the classic Faustian bargain. Facebook could heavily favor stories and content from its partners. For now, the details of whose content gets recommended –– or not recommended –– would be totally under Facebook’s control.

News media have been down this particular road once before, you may remember: A few years ago, so-called social readers were all the rage. These were applications from outlets such as the Guardian and the Washington Post that allowed readers to consume content from those publications without having to leave Facebook. The applications quickly gained millions of readers because Facebook promoted them; then, almost overnight, the social platform stopped doing so, and their readership was reduced to virtually zero.

The Guardian’s social reader app on Facebook (Photo: Screenshot via Adweek

The unfortunate reality of dealing with Facebook is that, as with Google, its algorithm is a black box. The only ones who know how it works — and ultimately control its outcome — are CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Cox, the executive in charge of the newsfeed.

They say they want high-quality content because that’s what their readers desire, and therefore it increases “engagement” with the platform. And so, they decide what content matches that description, and they decide who it will be shown to, and when. 

This is part of why Facebook as a news source is a concern not just for media outlets but for individual readers as well: The functioning of the Facebook algorithm — the way it chooses which things to show you and which to hide — is so arcane that many users aren’t even aware that it is operating. Their view of the world is being distorted in some way, but they don’t have any idea how or why. That’s more than a little troubling, and the new arrangement that Facebook is talking about would expand that problem even further.

For the media, meanwhile, it’s not just about editorial control –– it’s also about who ultimately benefits most from the kind of arrangement Facebook is proposing. If media outlets can get some data about their readers and their demographic breakdown, interests, etc., then it might arguably be worth it. But then there’s the long-term cost to consider: If consumers find more and more of their news appearing on Facebook without having to click to find it somewhere else, who will they start to see as the source of their news? Facebook.

In some ways, dealing with Facebook is actually worse than Faust’s deal: The German scholar chose to cut a deal with Satan primarily because he was vain, but media companies don’t really have a choice: They are forced to work with Facebook whether they want to or not, because the platform plays such a huge role in how millions of people come into contact with the news.

With that kind of clout, news entities can’t afford not to be on the network. But the more content they put there, the more they risk losing even more control over their business — and the only one that is in any position to dictate the terms of such a deal is Facebook. If anything could make newspapers and other traditional media outlets feel even worse about the state of their industry, it would be that they are forced to consider signing even lopsided deals like the one Facebook is offering.