Facebook news apps stifle open debate

· Nov 2, 2011 Tweet

For the last five years, I have had a tough time understanding just why people love to hate Facebook so much. Mark Zuckerberg and Co. consistently reinvent the way we communicate with each other, and they do it without inflicting a monetary cost. Yes, Facebook might participate in data mining, but you cannot say the same things about Facebook that you can about a telecommunications company that mines your data and makes you pay for it.

In September, Zuckerberg introduced a series of new Facebook features, most of which we are already familiar with. Media attention about the new features has focused on Timeline – a beautiful and comprehensive continuum featuring the most important moments in a user’s life – and integration with Spotify, which the tech press has inevitably touted as the future of the music industry.

Those claims might be true. But as a student journalist and, more importantly, as a news consumer, I’ve been most interested in Facebook’s attempt to change the news world. Just like Spotify has its integration into Facebook, news outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post are testing canvas applications that allow users to read original content inside of Facebook. You may have seen some of your most social media-conscious friends read these stories in your ticker.

Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of online content comes down to one word: sharing. And even though he hit the right note with the Spotify integration, I’m beginning to think news outlets like the Post will be better served to allow readers to find stories, like them or share them with commentary rather than have all those stories show up in a Facebook user’s news feed.

In the music world, commentary is limited to either a short blurb: “I really love this song!” or a long review that is often too ostentatious for a Facebook post. The news world, however, is driven by conversation and commentary. Users who take the initiative to share a link on Facebook normally have enough interest in pushing the story to their social network that they also will attract clicks because of their commentary on the story.

So yesterday, I decided to skim Facebook for news links and see how people engage their posters compared to other more innocuous posts. I excluded friends in my Badger Herald social circle for obvious reasons.

One of my most politically-active Facebook friends posted a link to a local story about a sex education bill proposed in the Legislature. His introduction to the piece was blunt, full of profanity and provocative. The post had 20 likes and 23 comments when I finished writing this column – a pretty impressive number for a college student’s profile.

Many social reader stories still appear on my News Feed, but they are mostly afterthoughts. They do not spark my interest or the interest of my friends to the same extent that posting a link with commentary or even listening to a song on Spotify would.

To make matters worse, the canvas applications currently in trial mode are not as visually appealing as individual websites; the entire right side of the application displays the same feed of application activity and an excess of Facebook ads more numerous than those seen on the homepage.

Most news organizations, including the Post and the Guardian, rightly take pride in the visual aesthetics of their individual websites. They have successfully translated this success to their mobile and tablet applications, but the desktop applications within Facebook are too restrictive to allow any sort of pleasurable user experience that outweighs simply clicking a favorites icon.

Since I’m a student journalist, I’m bombarded by the unavoidable questions about the future of journalism and online media. Some try to answer that the future of online journalism is uncertain, but in the last year or two I’ve noted a heightened sense of comfort in the media establishment with using tools like Facebook and Twitter to their advantage.

Many editors see Twitter and Facebook as a way to write headlines for the 21st century – search engine optimization has given way to the social reading experience. News outlets regularly send out tweets or Facebook posts that cater to a specific audience by writing provocative titles with questions or opportunities for engagement.

But with Facebook’s social reader applications, the opportunity for engagement is taken out of the equation. The headlines on the stories have already been written, and outlets no longer have the opportunity to rephrase their content to include questions or proposals before the link. Users like feeling like there’s a voice behind the tweet or Facebook post, and therefore could be pushed away by the idea of an automatically-generated and shared story.

Zuckerberg and his colleagues have their heads in the right place for trying to be part of the reinvention of journalism and deserve recognition for their efforts. But journalists have become so comfortable with the current uses of social media that Facebook did not really need to change anything in the first place. The new technology is useful for entertainment, but after watching the canvas applications fail to make the same splash that Spotify has made, I’m starting to think newsies will never want to give up their opportunity to engage the audience in their comments section.

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This article was published Nov 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm and last updated Nov 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm

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