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Musings on digital media, urbanization and politics from Seattle, Wash.

Facebook’s supposed TL;DR feature sounds pretty awful for publishers

December 16, 2020

There was a time when it felt like Facebook could save journalism. There was also a time when you could only access the platform with a .edu email address, the Newsfeed didn’t exist and there was a ‘Wall’ on your profile that was basically just a .txt file that anyone could edit or even delete completely.

Which is to say—things change.

News on the next potential Facebook development aimed not at saving journalism, but remaking it in their own image, comes via Buzzfeed tech reporter Ryan Mac—who clandestinely ‘sat in’ on the company’s end-of-year all-company meeting.

As background, TL;DR is internet parlance for “Too long; didn’t read.”

On its face, the feature feels real bad. Given more thought, still bad!

Some quick notes on TL;DR.

Digital publications need traffic because duh

The vast majority of the content on the web—at least content produced professionally—exists so you look at the other stuff around the content, as controlled or determined by the publisher.

Of course, ads are a big part of that. But there are also various goods and services. The reason content marketing is so big now is because it’s a great vehicle to directly or indirectly sell things.

People have to get to the things to buy them.

And that’s to say nothing of the data itself, which has value.

It’s an easy way to get news, but a bad way to get news

I’ll acknowledge this is market-driven product development. People read more content when the content is short and scannable. It’s why I’ve got H4 tags all over the place and about 300 words to wrap this up.

But distilling articles down to a few bullets in an effort to save users a click? Blegh.

The world needs more people consuming contextless quick-hit content like I need a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But again, it’s what people have decided they want through their behavior.

More vitriol, more negativity, less nuance, less thought.

We’re going to trust the AI?

For as long as sophisticated content-consumption tech has existed, there have been people gaming it.

And boy has Facebook done a poor job moderating the black hat engagement shenanigans on their platform.

So now we’ll trust AI to appropriately encapsulate the takeaways from news stories? To attribute sources and viewpoints? To provide the proper context? To not miss something huge?

Not so sure about that.

Facebook will push this

The positive side to this is that I’d guess if it becomes a reality—and not all these things do—then it’ll be an opt-in-type setup. I doubt you’ll have to enable it on your content. Not literally, at least.

But you may be forced to.

When Facebook has something new (or even old) they like, they’ll put it right in front of users as much as possible and rewards those who utilize it.

They juiced native videos when they first rolled them out, even going so far as to inflate the numbersAnother . They did the same, minus inflation (I think) for Facebook Live. There’s a reason why Groups—which have been on there forever—are now front center on the mobile app, going with a big ad campaign.

If TL;DR does end up being a thing, Facebook will likely cut deals with content producers to compensate them for utilizing it—at least on select stories. They did this on groups, they did this on video and they did it for Facebook Live.

So if you don’t enable something the big guys are doing, or your competitors are doing and being rewarded with every story ‘organically’ popping into the newsfeed, you’re falling behind. And aren’t left with much choice.

Something worth noting though—with the FTC clearly taking a closer look at Facebook’s anticompetitive behavior, do they end up doing some inspection on these ‘nudges’ for features?

After all, it’s easier to suck up even more of the worlds advertising revenue if you further reduce the number of people ever departing your site to consume content.

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Like I mentioned up above, this is market-driven feature development. It’s the type of thing that can further tighten Facebook’s strangehold on the world of news and the revenue that comes from it.

Then, the thing is, isn’t there more to creating something as big and powerful as Facebook? Wouldn’t the point be to leave the world a better place?

This, like too many Facebook developments before it, would make the world worse-off, not better.

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