Kane: Facebook’s new media partnership raises questions about editorial agency

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Kane: Facebook’s new media partnership raises questions about editorial agency

Noah Kane, Columnist

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When people ask me how large Northwestern’s student body is, I respond that we are more or less all mutual friends on Facebook. Perhaps my unconventional description is a failed attempt at humor — you can be the judge of that — but it does capture the salient truth that social media is a huge component of millennial life. But don’t just take it from me. A Crowdtap study found 71 percent of millennials use at least one social network daily. And when we start, we can’t stop; that same study also concluded that the average millennial uses social media for more than five hours each day.

For some perspective, there have been moments during exam weeks in which I’ve hardly managed to sleep for five hours.

Traditional newspapers, ever a few years late to the party, have begun to take notice. As it stands, a mere 10 percent of The New York Times’ subscribers are between the ages of 18 and 24. The Times — along with National Geographic, Buzzfeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild — announced on May 13th that they would begin directly hosting article content on Facebook.

These “instant articles” are now accessible through the official Facebook app to iPhone users. Because the articles open directly in users’ news feeds, they will reportedly load 10 times faster than traditional links. They will also be more immersive, featuring interactive maps, high-resolution photos and videos embedded directly into the content. In a vacuum, this seems like a win-win. Readers get content delivered in a more accessible and dynamic way, and publishers capture the business of an age group that currently pays them little attention. But what articles will actually be read, and by whom?

It’s no secret Facebook’s users provide it with an astonishingly large amount of data, both knowingly and unknowingly. And this data can be used in an unfathomable number of ways. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was able to run his own analysis on the social network’s data and conclude with 33 percent accuracy whether or not a given user would be in a relationship in the next week. Creepy or not, this unorthodox experiment highlights the fact that Facebook knows an awful lot about you.

Facebook is incredibly good at using this data to provide its users with content that is eerie in its relevance. In one viral blog post, a conniving roommate pranked his counterpart by purchasing a series of Facebook advertisements that were highly specific to him. The prankster’s roommate was, ironically, a professional sword swallower who was unable to swallow pills; he soon found an ad next to his news feed that addressed this exact problem. It was only when he saw an advertisement that asked, “Ever feel like your roommates are creating Facebook ads targeted to a niche of just you?” that he finally realized what had happened. The prank demonstrates Facebook’s potential to target content at specific users. It’s impossible to know for sure, but I’d like to think that it was so believable because of the prevalence of this kind of tailoring.

For the time being, the participating publishers in the instant articles program plan to post no more than a few articles a week on the platform. But if and when the service grows, it will inevitably raise questions about whether or not readers are actually becoming more informed as a result of it. If news feeds and related advertisements are already tailored to users, won’t instant articles — shared by friends or by pages to which readers are already subscribed — validate the existing interests and biases of their readers?

Presumably, traditional publications should be better equipped to determine the newsworthiness of certain stories than I could be. But I’m also not trying to suggest that the editors of The New York Times should be the sole arbiters of, as they would have it, what news is “fit to print.” In fact, they often aren’t. For example, some of the best journalism about the Edward Snowden whistleblowing incident came from Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for Salon.com and The Guardian. Greenwald’s work inspired Snowden to reach out to him in order to share his story — one that otherwise may not have become available for the Times to print.

In the end, though, I simply am forced to admit that I trust the Times’ editorial judgment more than that of most of my Facebook friends.

Moreover, there is enormous value in exposing oneself to new perspectives and issues. In an ideal world, I would contend that editors at large publications such as the Times should use their connections and expertise to assist their readers in that process. But Facebook, a company that has arguably perfected the art of spoon-feeding me the content I already want, doesn’t seem like the best candidate to lead that charge.

Noah Kane is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at noahkane2015@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.