Last night NYT columnist David Carr ran a piece that outlined the prospect of the news industry working with Facebook.
He is a wonderful writer, and came up with a fantastic metaphor for Facebook. "For publishers, Facebook is a bit like that big dog galloping toward you in the park. More often than not, it's hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you."
First a disclaimer. I am under non-disclosure with Facebook, and have been meeting and talking with people from the company about their news strategy since April. I have not been paid for this, so I'm still an independent developer. I am creating software designed to fit into the new ecosystem that Facebook is contemplating. That ecosystem is a lot like the one I designed years ago around RSS.
Now, the fact that I'm able to work with them tells you something about what Facebook is doing, and how they're doing it. If they were planning on eating the news industry, I would ask for a lot of money to help them do it. I might take the money, because the news industry is so frustratingly unable to chart their own future. And we do need news. And maybe the news industry isn't the best way forward for news in the coming years. One has to consider all the possibilities, even an independent developer and blogger such as myself.
But so far I am optimistic about the changes that are coming.
First, Facebook isn't a dog, so let's get that out of the way.
Facebook is a huge social network with 1.3 billion users. It runs amazingly fast for something so grand, and is almost never down. It's an unprecedented technical accomplishment, akin to a moon mission or a self-driving car. All those data centers responding to all our interactions, so quickly. That's never happened before on the scale that Facebook operates.
But in addition to sharing selfies and family events, it can also be a fantastic news delivery system. It can, but it isn't yet that. Sure there are news stories on Facebook, but the designers there envision something much greater.
So what does Facebook want? News, that's what they want.
Do they know how it will turn out? I'm sure they don't. They didn't get to be Facebook by answering all the questions up front before embarking on a technological journey. They put something out there, see if it sticks, learn from the users' experience, change the product, etc etc. How do I know this? Because it's the same process every other person who designs software uses. We don't know how things will turn out, any more than the manager of the Giants knows the outcome of a World Series game before it starts. You just put your best team on the field and see what happens.
What Facebook wants is lots of news to give their users. And of course they want to put advertising next to the news, as always, and they are willing to share revenue with the news people and software developers.
While I think I understand what Facebook wants, I'm pretty sure I don't understand what Carr's employer, the New York Times, wants. They hire engineers, but they're more like producers. They aren't building a news system to compete with Twitter or Facebook.
Unlike Facebook, authoring for the Times is still an exclusive thing. I can put something up on Facebook, and there's at least a chance of a million people reading it. I have no idea how to post a story to the NYT website, being deliberately naive about it. Being a realist I understand this is a club I can't be part of unless I'm invited in.
I don't know. The Times hasn't articulated a clear strategy. I don't know what they're doing, so it's hard to know whether it makes sense for them to work with Facebook. But, it's hard to imagine a scenario where they can afford to say anything other than an enthusiastic Yes! to the offer to collaborate. I certainly said yes when they asked me, without a moment's hesitation.
Well, I wrote a blog post about that, of course.
The short answer is this. Like it or not, Facebook exists.
Sure I remember a time when they didn't. Had I done things differently perhaps I could be where Zuckerberg is now. But that isn't what I wanted. I envisioned a world where there were lots of totally independent Internet-based news orgs and bloggers, on a level playing field, all learning from each other, and gradually, iteratively inventing the future of news.
But it didn't work out that way, for whatever reason. Now Facebook exists, and they are offering to work with us. How can you say no?
I don't think so.
Go back a few years, when YouTube was first gaining prominence, and consider the panic that went through the television industry. They found an answer, Hulu. And then Netflix, which is a fair compromise.
A lot of the TV industry remains intact, in fact it's flourishing. Quite possibly the same way that Facebook and the news industry can co-exist. But we need a Hulu for news, and lots of smaller hubs, analogous to the movie industry's festivals. Open news rooms. Places for independent news efforts to flourish. Bloggers and YouTubers, we're really the same thing. And these days you see a lot of YouTube on networks, on the nightly news and entertainment shows. News has to go through a similar transition. It has to become less exclusive, less elite. This rigidness is doing more harm than Carr's imaginary dog could ever do.
Here's a four-step roadmap for the news industry.