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Facebook’s Cat-and-Mouse Game With Publishers

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On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it will make yet another tweak to its ever-changing, all-mysterious algorithm. The platform’s News Feed — the main source of updates for the company’s 1.65 billion monthly active users — will now favor posts from friends and family members over those of media organizations.

For you, this probably means more baby photos, gym selfies, and arguments with family members who support Trump. But for the many media organizations who rely on this platform as a way to distribute their stories, it is an existential threat. As The New York Times diplomatically put it, the change is yet another reminder that “publishers rank lower on Facebook’s list of priorities.”

Still, it’s not exactly surprising. In fact, the company’s change of heart is just the latest entry in a long history of the platform’s Ramsay Bolton–esque games with publishers. Today, it seems publishers could be right back where they started: the dazed and helpless captive of a cruel and unpredictable ally.

Below, a brief timeline of Facebook’s storied past with publishers, and the organizations that were hit hardest.

September 2011 to May 2012: A Partnership Lives and Dies

Facebook’s early power struggle with publishers began with the creation of outlet-specific “social readers,” or tools that curated stories based on user interests, and helped them share what they were reading on their News Feed. Despite participation from well-respected publications, the apps were slow to gain a significant audience. When the apps began spamming users with updates, Facebook deprioritized their appearance in the News Feed, forcing their death.

The Casualties: The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Daily Motion.

April 2014: The “Likebait” Apocalypse

In a moment of rare, incredibly delayed self-awareness, News Feed engineers realized that people were taking advantage of Facebook’s automatic “like”-based hierarchy by explicitly asking users to give their thumbs-up to a post (as in “If you’re excited for Mad Men tonight, like this post!”) They deemed the practice “likebaiting” and adjusted their software to squash it, alongside accounts that repeatedly posted the same content or used misleading language to encourage users to click on ads.

The Casualties: The hundreds of millennial social media managers who staked their careers on this skill.

June 2014: Video Binge

Facebook has turned its billions of monthly video views into serious advertising cash, thanks in part to a strategic tweak in its algorithm two years ago. Engineers began prioritizing videos that were directly uploaded to the platform by taking into account whether they were being watched, and for how long. The whole campaign created a self-perpetuating cycle that surfaced more videos for every new one you watched.

The Casualties: Everyone’s data plan.

August 2014: The Nail in Clickbait’s Coffin

At the peak of clickbait-y “You’ll Never Guess Which Celebrity Breathed” headlines, many blamed platforms like Facebook for being the shit-filled fertilizer to a crop of incredibly successful, incredibly vapid websites. But the company also ultimately acted as their pesticide when it declared it no longer cared for content that “encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.”

The Casualties: Elite Daily, Distractify, Upworthy, the German version of Upworthy, Gawker (and in oblique ways, the vague feeling of low-stakes suspense, in general).

January 2015: Hoax-busters

Laying the groundwork for what would eventually be the website’s “trending topics” feature, Facebook began allowing users to report unlikely news stories in their feed as false. “People often share these hoaxes and later decided to delete their original posts after they realize that they have been tricked,” Facebook wrote in the blog post, rubbing salt in the wounded ego of your gullible aunt. With this change, the algorithm de-prioritized posts that multiple people flagged as false, but according to Facebook’s research, didn’t generally affect satire.

The Casualties: Bigfoot theorists, 9/11 truthers, The Drudge Report, probably Andy Borowitz.

April 2015: Content With Friends

Déjà vu, no? A little over a year ago, Facebook made almost the exact same announcement that it did on Wednesday. The company said it would rank the photos, videos, status updates, and links posted by a user’s friends higher up in the News Feed because its research showed that “people are worried about missing important updates from the friends they care about.” By November, there were reports that traffic for Facebook’s top publishers had dipped a terrifying 32 percent.

The Casualties: The Huffington Post, Fox News, BuzzFeed — actually, almost every publisher.

May 2015: News This Instant

Facebook once again aimed to establish an alliance with the media, this time through a program that allowed publishers to post full stories directly to the News Feed. The program — which launched with nine main news organizations but eventually opened up to others — allowed outlets to embed ads in their articles and keep the revenue, or let the social network include its own ads for a 30 percent cut. As The New York Times wrote, the program was a result of “delicate negotiations between the internet giant and publishers that covet its huge audience but fear its growing power.” But the major catch? Facebook still refused to give these articles any special priority in the News Feed, essentially leaving the responsibility of distribution up to content creators.

The Casualties: Meh, no one really — this feature still works pretty well for users. Possibly developers at these outlets who had to put in the time to make articles work in this feature.

March 2016: Live Is Lit

Facebook is known for being especially aggressive in nudging new mediums in front of its users, so it’s no surprise that Live Video got a helpful boost in the News Feed algorithm after being made available to everyone this spring. Alongside these changes, Facebook also inked deals with publishers like The New York Times and BuzzFeed, agreeing to pay them for participating in the new feature.

The Casualties: Everyone who missed out on being paid to blow up a watermelon on Facebook Live (i.e., me).