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Yes, Facebook is a media company

Daniel Roberts
Writer

Facebook (FB) doesn’t want to call itself a media company. That’s despite the fact that most of the company’s major initiatives in the past two years are around digital media—live video, fast-loading articles from media outlets, and a curated news feed.

COO Sheryl Sandberg was asked on Tuesday at the WSJD Live conference, “Is Facebook acknowledging that it is a media company, and not just a technology platform?”

Surprise, surprise: it is not. Sandberg gave this non-answer: “Facebook’s a platform for all ideas and it’s really core to our mission that people can share what they care about on Facebook. And that includes everything from ‘it’s my friend’s birthday’ to ‘here I am at this conference with my friend Chris’ to things that matter to them in the news.”

It’s classic misdirection from Facebook executives about what Facebook is. But make no mistake: though they may not want to say it, Facebook is absolutely a media company. It is also a technology platform; these descriptors are not mutually exclusive.

Of course, the very term “media company” is dirty these days, when the media industry is struggling; no one wants to be a shareholder in a media company. But a “technology platform,” now that’s appealing.

Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, reiterated at the WSJ event the prediction, from a recent Ericsson Mobility Report, that 70% of all mobile web traffic will be to videos by 2021. Facebook has been preparing for this shift with a slew of news bells-and-whistles that make it easier for news outlets, brands, independent creators, and celebrities to create live video. Call it video, or content, or whatever you want—it is digital media.

Many, many Americans get their news from Facebook now. According to a report this year from the Pew Research Center, nearly 65% of US adults get their news from social media. Within that group, 66% of Facebook users get news from the site, and 59% of Twitter users.

Facebook has already been very publicly grappling with its identity as a news provider. In 2014, it quietly hired an editorial team of about a dozen people to oversee and select the stories that appear in Trending Topics. That a small cadre held so much power over what you see in your news feed was already controversial (with allegations of instructions to editors to favor certain news providers over others), but in August, Facebook fired the whole team. Almost immediately, fake news stories appeared in the feed. So: who should control the news that appears on Facebook, and how can Facebook ensure political neutrality, and how can it prevent fake or dangerous content from appearing?

These are questions that media companies deal with regularly. And Facebook’s refrain that it is merely a content “platform” and not a creator doesn’t hold water anymore. What was once a place where people shared news content is now also the place where news content originates. Media outlets are creating new original content on Facebook, which is is an increasingly closed ecosystem: Instant Articles, launched last year, keeps readers from leaving Facebook when they click a news story.

Twitter, with its Moments feature, and Snapchat, with its Discover channel, also both present the news in their own format, and Snapchat often writes its own stories and summarizes news stories in original videos. This is all original media content.

Now the Donald Trump campaign just launched a new nightly show that airs Facebook. Boris Epshteyn, a Trump adviser, will host. Epshteyn told Wired the show is an effort “to circumvent the mainstream media.” But Facebook is the media too.

So Facebook has become not just a repository for media creators to post digital media, but the closed home where much of that media lives. The fact that Facebook is not the creator of the content does not mean it isn’t a media company.

Facebook is a media company, Twitter is a media company, and even Snapchat is a media company. All three of them host news stories, and package news stories in their own format, and have made a major push into live video, and have paid to stream live events.

And being a media company does not negate being a technology company. Every technology giant, these days, wants to be everything. The term “social network” can be retired.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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