Facebook’s product guy is right, the media sucks — but journalists are also right: Facebook has to share the blame

Facebook (s fb) director of product Mike Hudack lit the fuse on a massive powder-keg of emotion on Thursday, when he posted a rant about the current state of the media. In Hudack’s view, too much of what currently passes for journalism is shallow click-bait. Almost immediately, you could hear journalists across the country popping blood vessels: After all, isn’t the fact that click-bait reigns supreme at least partly Facebook’s fault?

In his post, Hudack says that CNN has become “the network of kidnapped white girls” and that the nation’s newspapers have been mostly “hollowed out” and are “ghosts in a shell.” Meanwhile, BuzzFeed gets criticized for being mostly listicles, and Vox gets slammed for not providing the kind of serious journalism that the Facebook product manager says he was hoping for:

“Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of just watching them from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy. And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.”

But isn’t this all Facebook’s fault?

Within a matter of minutes following Hudack’s post, there were opposing rants from journalists — in the comments on his post, on Twitter and later in critical posts at sites like Vox itself, as well as BuzzFeed, Gawker and Forbes. Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal seemed to sum up the views of many in his response to Hudack, which he posted both on Facebook and on Twitter:

Of course, it’s probably not fair to blame Mike Hudack for — or ask him to justify — all of Facebook’s various sins against the media. For one thing, he hasn’t been at the company that long, and while he is described by many of his critics as “director of product” for the giant social network, he makes it clear in one of his responses that his primary responsibility is for advertising and brand-related pages.

It’s also worth noting that one of the first questions Hudack was asked was whether he thought Facebook could help fix the problems he described, and he responded: “Yes I do.” Whether it can or not remains to be seen: the network has been trying by tweaking its algorithm to focus on more “high quality” content — but how exactly it defines that phrase remains frustratingly unclear.

Is it fair to blame Facebook for all of the various click-bait offences committed by media outlets? In his post at Vox, entitled “Facebook product director furious at Facebook’s effect on news,” Matt Yglesias argues that it is, because the social traffic driven by the network is such a big contributor to the reach of many sites:

“It is not hard to tell who is to blame for the fact that the jeans story (which is a great, interesting, informative story) got more readers than Andrew Prokop’s excellent feature on the DATA Act. Facebook is to blame… these days the bulk of web traffic is driven by social media and the bulk of social traffic is driven by Facebook.”

Social traffic is what matters

The fact that Facebook and Twitter (s twtr) are more important than Google (s goog) when it comes to sending traffic to media sites isn’t really in dispute, at least not anywhere credible. Even the New York Times acknowledged this in its recent innovation report, which talked about the need to be part of the social conversation around its stories after they are published, instead of leaving others to capture the related web traffic. And the effect that Facebook’s algorithm can have is stark, as Huffington Post reporter Kim Bhasin pointed out on Twitter:

As several journalists pointed out — including Mike Masnick at Techdirt, and Circa editor-in-chief Anthony De Rosa — no one is forcing media sites to pander to Facebook’s desires or algorithms if they don’t want to. Theoretically at least, the giant social network and its algorithm only have as much power as media companies choose to give it. But one of Hudack’s colleagues at Facebook argued they have no choice because of the way the media world is funded (i.e., based on advertisers who look at metrics like pageviews and social engagement):

“I think the justification is they do the link bait crap to pay for proper journalism. We need to figure out how we can both value and pay for an industry that has been totally disrupted by the internet.”

Hudack wasn’t having any of this explanation. In a comment that seemed mostly directed at new digital-media entities like BuzzFeed and Vox, he said: “I call bullshit. They do the link bait to make money. They do real journalism as a hobby if they do it at all. And once they realize that it’s a cost center that isn’t going to pay back their venture investors they shut it down. Just like their mass media forebears.”

Facebook and the media are in this together

In another lengthy response to a critical comment on his Facebook post, Hudack argued that the social network is trying to improve its algorithm so that it highlights more high-quality journalism, and that media companies themselves have to bear some of the blame for their own behavior:

“Is Facebook helping or hurting? I don’t honestly know. You guys are right to point out that Facebook sends a lot of traffic to shitty listicles. But the relationship is tautological, isn’t it? People produce shitty listicles because they’re able to get people to click on them. People click on them so people produce shitty listicles.”

In the end, Hudack and his critics seem to be interested in the same thing: namely, promoting better journalism. But neither one seems to know how to get there — especially when the business model for most media companies still relies on eyeball-based, click-driven metrics, and when many users (particularly the ones on Facebook) would much rather click to see a photo of a cute puppy than they would read a long and informative post on political corruption.

Can Facebook help solve that problem? I’m not convinced that it can, even if it does try to tweak its algorithm — all that does is turn it into something resembling an old-fashioned newspaper, and we know how things have worked out for them. In many ways, both the media and Facebook (which is a media company itself in many ways) are chasing human nature, because that’s what pays the bills. And until that changes, not much else will.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / NKMandic