This is the day that the New York Times, National Geographic, and BuzzFeed, among others, began publishing stories directly to Facebook. The instant-publishing partnership is the newest concession to, or accommodation with, Facebook’s ever-greater dominance of how people encounter and read (or watch) material.
Publications (including Gawker Media sites) already depend heavily on Facebook to promote and distribute their stories. The audience of millions lurking on the far side of the social-networking/data-mining company’s algorithms is a source of terror and anxiety, and also of greed. Facebook has made it possible for stories and videos to reach truly shocking numbers of eyeballs, and also for stories and videos not to reach those same eyeballs, for opaque and arbitrary-seeming reasons either way.
So the theory behind instant publishing is that Facebook’s new partners will become more active participants in the process. They will create special Facebook-friendly design features—”if you have an iPhone (no Android version yet),” Vindu Goel wrote in the Times, “you might see the image in the cover photo move, like the motion in one of the newspaper images in a Harry Potter movie”—and get smoother delivery. “I think that our bundle of content will get even more compelling when it loads faster,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti told the Times.
Is content more compelling when it loads faster? Let’s savor that quote again in slow motion, so as not to miss any of the words:
(On reflection, it seems likely that by “compelling” Peretti means something roughly inverse to that: The faster delivery of content makes it easier for content to simply happen to the reader, without personal compulsion or even intention.)
And but, more pertinently, instant publishing means that the content-makers who cooperate will be able to sell ads on Facebook and gather data on their Facebook readers. Facebook could almost be thought of as a thoroughly neutral publishing platform.
But Facebook is nothing of the sort, which is a point that the coverage has largely elided. Some people have wondered what fate might befall a publication’s investigative report about Facebook, now that Facebook is the publishing outlet of first resort. That’s a valid but unnecessary thought experiment: We already know that Facebook suppresses lots of material.
Facebook’s “community standards” page lists 11 different categories of forbidden content, ranging from “Direct Threats” (“We remove credible threats of physical harm to individuals”) to “Nudity” (“We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks”). On the subject of nudity, Facebook explains that it is set up to err on the side of being over-restrictive:
In order to treat people fairly and respond to reports quickly, it is essential that we have policies in place that our global teams can apply uniformly and easily when reviewing content. As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes. We are always working to get better at evaluating this content and enforcing our standards.
Gawker Media publications have had their Facebook accounts frozen for a wide variety of reasons. A video compiling ice-bucket-challenge mishaps was flagged because one of the women in it was topless, though she was covering her breasts. A post about Miley Cyrus’s bruised butt was flagged, presumably for being about a butt. A post about the question of what role marijuana could have played in the shooting of Michael Brown was flagged, mysteriously, for allegedly being racist.
Some of Facebook’s objections can be overturned on appeal. Others reflect a genuine disagreement about editorial standards. Gawker Media sites try to avoid using Facebook to promote posts that contain nudity, because Facebook disallows a much greater range of nudity than we do. If we think of what we do on Facebook as a form of publishing, rather than as a form of promotion, then we are currently self-censoring to meet Facebook’s standards.
When Facebook is a gatekeeper for content, the model for online publishing stops being a no-standards free-for-all and becomes something more like the Big Three television networks. Mass audiences must be handled delicately, tastefully, appropriately. PG-13, at the worst.
How are Facebook’s new partners accommodating the company’s content standards, or vice versa? BuzzFeed Chief of Staff Ashley McCollum referred questions about how BuzzFeed meets Facebook standards to a spokesperson for Facebook.
That spokesperson wrote in an email: “This content is treated no differently than all other content posted to Facebook. We ask that all content posted directly to Facebook comply with our Community Standards.”