2018 will be remembered as the year the news industry changed its tune about platforms
2018 was a remarkable year for news. It finally parted ways with the technology platform that had been shaping so many aspects of everyone’s work. Facebook isn’t gone, but news is free now to explore other technologies that help journalism thrive.
I have a related personal story from this year about an amazing piano. Bear with me. It will make sense by the end.
The Aeolian Duo-Art player piano of the early twentieth century was a remarkable machine. It had a crazy pump system that sucked air through a harmonica-like bar that triggered each individual key to play as a paper roll slid across the holes instructing the piano what to play with each little puncture in the paper.
Ours had music rolls from several composers including Gershwin and Rachmaninov who recorded pieces directly through these machines. The piano played back the artist’s performance in precisely the way it was originally performed on the piano. It’s truly ghost-like.
The piano was ridiculously heavy and too large for us. It had to wait in storage, and as much as I dreamed we would be able to bring it back out of the warehouse and set it up at home 2018 was the year I finally let it go.
Keeping it for a future that might never come was costing me money, and the burden of its existence was making me resentful.
I spoke to several piano experts and auction houses, and they all said the same thing, “Those things are amazing, arent’ they? Too bad nobody wants them. Good luck.”
I was the last to realise that it was in fact totally worthless to most of the rest of the world.
News people love what technology can do. A great media technology translates stories in journalists’ and editors’ heads into something real that other people can experience.
2018 was a particularly interesting year for news and technology. It wasn’t so much the faded dreams of technology like newsprint and TV. That story is unfolding nearly as slowly as the death of Aeolian’s Duo-Arts. 2018 was the beginning of the end of the relationship between news and the Internet’s big tech platforms, Facebook, in particular.
In 2015 and 2016 it seemed that Facebook was going to control the whole Internet. News publishers thought they had no choice but to fully and wholeheartedly embrace this behemoth.
Publishers could be forgiven for promoting Like buttons on their sites in 2015. What did they get in exchange for adding a little piece of code that gave Facebook full access to every news publisher’s web site traffic? The mere possibility that they might get more exposure. Somehow that seemed fair at the time.
Then in 2017 things changed.
By the end of 2017 engagements for news on Facebook had dropped steadily for about 8 months consecutively. This decline was very public. The company must have realised that publishers weren’t just observing their own traffic referrals from Facebook; they were observing traffic patterns on Facebook itself.
Then in early 2018, Facebook announced they had plans to deprioritise news in their algorithm. To me, that announcement seemed like some sort of cover up. Was the data indicating a real problem for Facebook? Were they hiding negative network effects?
If in fact Facebook is battling negative network effects it would make a lot of sense to remove anything capable of observing the trend. That could explain why they announced the deprioritisation. But Facebook is a particularly savvy PR machine. The cleverest part of that announcement was actually that by saying they were changing the algorithm they didn’t have to change the algorithm. If someone noticed declines they could explain them away in a snap — “We deprioritised your traffic, remember? Everything’s fine.”
Whether driven intentionally by Facebook’s changes or organically by negative network effects the declines didn’t matter. There was a collective sigh of relief followed by a brief panic about a lost future where social media would save journalism. That imagined future living inside Facebook’s circle of life was a house of cards, anyhow. Everyone knew it. They were allowed to admit it to each other, finally.
It was the best thing that could’ve happened to news. News was free to move on.
This is the point in the story where we should talk about what came next, but I’m going to save that for another post. The impact of January 2018 is worth more reflection.
In 2015 when Facebook gave a talk at the Perugia Journalism Festival people I spoke to there were a bit in awe of the company. Journalists were really trying to understand what to do about it. They weren’t fawning over the company, but they weren’t resisting it, either.
In 2015 many people in news appreciated the historical significance of Facebook’s achievements as a company and still wanted to ride the wave. It had momentum on it side.
That sentiment is not dissimilar to the Trump phenomenon today. As my Republican friends like to say, “Whether you like him or not you have to appreciate the man’s total domination of everything.” Yes, actually, it is truly remarkable. We are living a moment that history will not soon forget. That we can agree.
Three years later at the same event in Spring 2018 most of the people I spoke to in Perugia about Facebook had nothing positive to say about the company. If they did have something to say it was angry, sometimes spiteful. But mostly they didn’t care anymore.
The new relationship was on display at the presentation by Nick Wrenn head of news partnerships for Facebook EMEA. He was solemn, apologetic. But there were hardly any people there to apologise to.
Looking back on their efforts over the years it seems that the news ecosystem was an inconvenience to the company. It may have been a helpful source of free content to keep their users on the platform, but they didn’t understand the nuances of journalism and why publishers were frustrated. When they did try to work with others they seemed tone-deaf.
They just wanted more cowbell.
In 1929 the Wall Street crash killed sales of Duo-Arts. The phonograph technology and music catalog had improved enough to reclaim its place in people’s living rooms. The player piano market was reduced to enthusiasts only by the early 1930s.
One of the Aeolian Duo-Art piano enthusiasts found our little gem eventually. When I went to the storage facility to prepare it for its new owner, I opened it up to take some photos and to hear it once more. I found hinges dangling and had to prop up the lid with another part. Some keys were stuck. Cords were split, some broken. There was rust here and there. Parts worn down. A few cracks in the wood.
My piano wasn’t the picture I had imagined in my head at all. This was a heavy box of strings and gears.
I have to admit, it wasn’t easy sending that piano off with someone else. It had been in my family a long time, and I felt everyone’s disappointment and the piano’s own long history weighing on my shoulders.
There was some relief when the sounds it made failed to qualify as music. And even more when I watched them struggle to load the beast on their truck. It was truly from another time.
When I returned home that day my daughter was teaching herself a new song on the little keyboard that sits comfortably in the corner of our living room. She was playing along with somebody’s how-to video she found on YouTube.
The beat goes on.