News and Facebook’s ‘Like’ Button

On: March 3, 2011
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About Catalina Iorga
BA in International Politics and History ’09 from Jacobs University Bremen. Research MA in Media Studies (in progress) at Universiteit van Amsterdam. Currently finalising my MA thesis on the topic the challenges of studying Facebook as an ever-changing techno-cultural platform. I also own my own journalism and social media consulting business. Passionate about sustainability, arts & culture, software studies and helping SMEs expand their social media reach.

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One of the most talked about aspects concerning Facebook’s launch of social plugins was how these would affect the content and distribution of news. My aim in this short post is to briefly address the following exploratory question: “What are the matters of concern expressed in the popular debate with respect to the implementation of Facebook’s social plugins on news websites?” To locate these matters of concern, I used the Facebook + Media page as one of the starting points, as well as a presentation made by Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s Director of Media Partnerships, ‘Working Together to Build Social News’ (September, 2010).

Marking the launch of its new set of social plugins launch, Facebook created a ‘Facebook + Media’ page that aims to help their media partners to “[l]earn about best practices and tools to […] drive referral traffic, increase engagement, and deepen user insights” (Facebook, 2010). The very name of the page alludes to a separation between Facebook – as the largest social networking website – and the rest of the media, including offline corporations with an online presence. In fact, the equation-style About statement on the aforementioned Page reads as follows: “Facebook + Media = Helping News, TV, Video, Sports, and Music partners use Facebook.” The social networking site portrays itself as an advisor to traditional media, giving advice on how to maximize the use of Facebook and its social plugins.

On the 28th of September 2010, Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s Director of Media Partnerships, gave a stats-driven presentation called ‘Working Together to Build Social News’. According to these statistics, the implementation of the ‘Like’ button led to a massive increase in traffic for news websites ABC News and Global News, to name just a few. More traffic means more insight into a news website’s demographic through a Facebook-developed application called Insights for Websites, which offers aggregated data, such as the “gender, age range, country, and language” (Himel, 2011) of the site’s visitors. Such information, evidently, can be used not only for tailoring the geographic specificity of news content, but also to help advertisers in targeting Facebook users.

Another way to attract traffic is creating content headlines that conform to four categories of stories that receive more engagement according an analysis of posts from major news media Facebook Pages. These are as follows: “touching, emotional stories”, “provocative, passionate debates”, “sports game important wins” and “simple easy questions to the user” (Osofsky, 2010). Joshua Benton of the Nieman Lab identifies the problem of producing news content in a Web environment oriented towards positive reaction: “as news organizations — many of them traditional bringers of bad news — have to adjust to an online ecosystem that privileges emotion, particularly positive emotion.” (Benton, 2011)

The Personalization of News

In a video[1] that explains how social plugins work, the narrator states that, before the emergence of the ‘Like’ button, users “had to choose between the social experience of Facebook and the specialized information of a content site [the video give a news platform as example]”, a choice colloquially referred to as “kind of a bummer”. Facebook therefore makes several assumptions worth mentioning. First, that news website and social networks are mutually exclusive and in competition with each other, meaning that that users must always make a choice. Second, that the average newsreader and Facebook account holder wants to merge these experiences.

But what I find to be the most crucial implication of adding a ‘Like’ button to news pages relates to democracy and isolation from contesting views, a phenomenon that Sunstein discusses extensively when referring to personal insulation or group polarization. Arguing that “there is a natural human tendency to make choices with respect to […] news that do not disturb our preexisting view of the world” (Sunstein, 2007: 52), the American legal scholar outlines the fact that we, as Web users with already established political inclinations, for example, choose to stick to sources – and people – sharing similar orientations.

If one applies the same logic to Facebook social plugins, then what the Activity Feed does is deepen these preferences by offering readers stories their friends already found interesting. Not only are then users sticking to their favourite websites, but they are also receiving recommendations from people who presumably have matching views when it comes to socio-political matters.

Social news has the potential of creating a relatively solitary experience in which the user, guided by a limited number of recommendations, fails to critically engage with a more diverse range of content. The danger associated with this attitude, of clicking directly on the ‘Likes’ instead of browsing through content is that “many people are mostly hearing more and louder echoes of their own voices” (Sunstein, 2007: 55) or, in this scenario, their friends; this leads to a lack of plural perspectives, which is “undesirable from the [deliberative] democratic standpoint” (Sunstein, 2007: 55).

The Commodification of the ‘Liker’

Although The Washington Post was one of Facebook’s official partners in launching the ‘Like’ button, columnist Rob Pegoraro has expressed concerns on the Post’s blog about Sponsored Stories, a new type of advertising that takes ‘Likes’ and re-uses them on Facebook by allowing companies and individuals to “buy the right to republish […] actions [such as ‘Likes’ or check-ins] to your friends in ads — including your name and profile photo” (Pegoraro, 2011).  By ‘liking’ items, users generate value that is exploited by commercial interests without their consent or the receipt of any financial compensation. Not to mention the difficulty of opting out from this imposed arrangement.

Bruns and Shirky would probably agree that Facebook and their social plugins organize content in a folksonomic manner, tailored to the personal connections of a user’s network. Jay Rosen, Journalism professor at New York University, agrees with Shirky and argues that “there’s no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure.” (Shirky in Juskalian, 2008). He then proceeds to explain that “[t]he social stream is a means to filter success. Relying on friends and a personal network to filter the news and point out the best stuff solves that problem Shirky identified” (Rosen in Lavrusik, 2010). But ‘filtering success’, as Rosen puts it does not only benefit the user, but also news platforms and their advertisers.

To ‘like’ news is then a way of produsing metadata, which is “treated today much like a public service as common property to all who have contributed to its creation” (Bruns, 2007: 173) in the sense that ‘Likes’ contribute to personalization of websites according to individual preferences. Only that the actual produsers of the content are not financially profiting from spreading their interests across news websites, while news organizations, their advertisers and Facebook do. Even if these platforms cannot be called ‘parasites’, as Pasquinelli refers to Google, which uses metadata to make money even if it does not offer any original content,  they do exploit the ‘Like’ economy (Gerlitz and Helmond, 2011) through targeted advertisements based on the demographic data of their users, both on news websites and inside Facebook.

The ‘Like’ Button’s Impact on News Content

Journalists and scholars are now asking themselves how social plugins will affect the content of news. According to Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Lab, optimizing the social media of a news platform will not only consist of adding diverse plugins, but also “changing, in subtle ways, the kinds of content being produced to encourage sharing” (Benton, 2011). He does not, however, mention whether this is a welcome development or a negative one, claiming instead “it’s the natural outcome of the economic incentives at play” (Benton, 2011).

Given that news organizations are not just providers timely information on current affairs, but also businesses that want to make profit and pay their staff, it seems there is no way to escape the commercial implications of the ‘Like’ button. Money is here to stay in this equation. The question is: how can journalists figure out a way to produce financially viable content without sacrificing their professionalism and objectivity? It is perhaps too early to judge the impact of social plugins since they have only been in use for less than a year. But it is still worth discussing the potential effects of these relatively new tools.

Certain studies, such as one done on a sample of 46,000 tweets collected during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, support Osofsky’s advice: “if you want your messages to be forwarded and to reach more people, you need to make sure that both the tone and content of your online messages are positive overall.” (Gruzd et al., 2011: 7) The authors used automated software to judge whether tweets expressed positive, neutral or negative emotions and realized that the positive ones were the most retweeted, about 2.5 times more than the rest.

Based on this logic, newsreaders could ‘like’ content that arouses negative emotions since ‘liking’ is also an act of sharing and recommending. Would they like it more than positive information? That is a problem worth exploring, but that goes beyond the limitations of this post.

[1] Facebook (2010). Understanding Social Plugins. Retrieved March 28, 2011 from http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150210521510484&oid=20531316728&comments

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