Tabloid vs broadsheet, Facebook edition

There’s a lot of chatter around about Facebook at the moment in the light of the high levels of traffic it’s driving to publishers, and the way it’s trying to define itself as a news destination as well as a social one. Particularly interesting post on this topic at AllThings D today, which talks about the not-entirely-successful news feed redesign, and the dichotomy between what Facebook seems to want for itself and what its users seem to want from it.

Most people think of Facebook in a similar way: It’s a place to share photos of your kids. It’s a way to keep up with friends and family members. It’s a place to share a funny, viral story or LOLcat picture you’ve stumbled upon on the Web.

This is not how Facebook thinks of Facebook. In Mark Zuckerberg’s mind, Facebook should be “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” He wants a design-and-content mix that plays up a wide array of “high-quality” stories and photos.

The gap between these two Facebooks — the one its managers want to see, and the one its users like using today — is starting to become visible.

I’m not a fan of the constant return to the print metaphor whenever we talk about new ways of depicting news online – the newspaper idea – because it tends so badly to limit the scope of what’s possible to what’s already been done. It’s an appeal to authority, the old authority of print pages, the idea not just of a curated experience delivered as a package but also a powerful force in the political world. An authoritative voice. And it’s likely that Facebook would not be upset if, as a side effect of becoming a more newspaper-ish experience, it also gained more power.

But what we’re talking about here isn’t just a newspaper-Facebook vs a not-a-newspaper-Facebook. It’s the tension between tabloid and broadsheet style, played out in microcosm in the news feed, just as it’s being played out in a lot of news organisations that used to be newspapers. It’s the question of whether you can really wield power and authority, whether you can be trusted, if you’re posting hard news alongside cat gifs. It’s the Buzzfeed questions played out without any content to publish, an editor’s dilemma without editorial control.

It’s also an identity question, because it always is with social media. We’re not one person universally across all our services; we don’t behave the same way on Twitter as we do on Facebook. What Zuckerberg wants isn’t just a news feed change, it’s also a shift in the way we express and construct our Facebook selves – a shift more towards the Twitter self, perhaps. A more serious, more worthy consumption experience and sharing motive, a more informational and less conversational self.

Maybe that’s a really difficult problem to solve, adjusting the way identity works within an online service. Or maybe tweaking people is easy to do, if you just find the right algorithm and design tweaks.

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Mary Hamilton

I’m a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

What do you think?