So Facebook controls the way millions of people get their news. What should we do about it?

The New York Times seems to have finally awoken to the idea that Facebook exerts a growing amount of control over how millions of people get their news, and that it would very much like to increase that control as much as possible — in order to serve the best interests of its users, of course. This is something that I have been writing about for some time now, and it is not going away. If anything, the pressure on media companies to play ball with Facebook is only growing more intense.

As David Carr and Ravi Somaya note in their pieces, the structure of the media business has changed dramatically thanks to the rise of the social web — of which Facebook is by far the largest part. Where media companies used to control the distribution of their content because they owned the printing presses and the trucks, now entities like Facebook control who sees what and when.

In classic internet fashion, this is both a good thing and a bad thing simultaneously: on the one hand, it allows news and other content to reach a far larger audience than it ever would have otherwise, and that’s arguably a positive thing not just for news companies but for society as a whole.

The algorithm is the editor now

The downsides of Facebook’s dominance, however, are legion — including the vacuum that the giant social network has created when it comes to internet advertising, which has sucked a lot of the oxygen out of both the traditional and the online media industry. In addition, the desire to surf the massive wave of attention that Facebook has at its command has arguably led to a rise in clickbait-style content, and in a broader sense has compelled news companies to try and conform to Facebook’s idea of what good or shareable content is.

In comments to the Times, a News Feed engineer says that Facebook doesn’t want to be an editor, it just wants to show people what they are interested in, based on their behavior on the site and their social connections. And technically, this is true. But as Jay Rosen points out in a blog post on the issue, the Facebook algorithm is still an incredibly powerful editorial force, whether Facebook wants to admit it or not. And we don’t know anything about how it operates or why — like Google’s search algorithm, it is essentially a black box.

Because of the role that Facebook plays in people’s lives, the functioning of that algorithm is very much a public policy issue and a media literacy problem — as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has argued in a piece she wrote for Medium. As I argued in a similar piece, the social network’s influence (or lack of influence) around the events in Ferguson, Mo. earlier this year raises some important questions about the way that algorithms are shaping our world view.

You will be assimilated

David Carr compares Facebook to a large dog, but a better comparison might be the Borg, the race of cyborgs that constantly strove to assimilate human beings in Star Trek. The social network doesn’t want to get rid of people, it just sees them as sources of input that can be aggregated in a much more efficient way — and it doesn’t want to hurt media companies, it just sees them as content producers whose output can fuel its engagement engines.

To that end, the site would very much like publishers to submit their content directly to Facebook, so that it lives inside the network rather than just being a link to external content. This would be the equivalent of suicide for most traditional media entities, since it would effectively hand control over not just the content but the monetization of that content to Facebook. As Carr puts it, media companies “would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”

There will almost certainly be companies that take Facebook up on this offer, despite the seemingly unbalanced nature of the deal, just as there were media companies that created “social reading” apps in 2012 that allowed readers to consume content without ever leaving Facebook. That idea ended badly when Facebook changed the way it ranks content and killed those apps in their sleep.

Offer readers the things Facebook can’t

So if Facebook exerts this overwhelming control over how people find and consume and engage with news, what are media companies supposed to do about it? They can’t just ignore the company outright, because that would spell certain doom. Social is the new search, especially when it comes to mobile, and creating great content is useless unless there is some way to ensure that people see it.

For me, the only possible route to survival (notice I didn’t use the word prosperity or success, just survival) is to play in Facebook’s sandbox, but to give up as little as possible — and at the same time, to spend as much or more effort on figuring out how to make your content as engaging and social as it can be on your own terms. Give readers the ability to do things that Facebook can’t or won’t: the ability to interact with you, to be part of the process. That’s why I am such a big believer in media getting to know its audience as intimately as possible.

Marc Andreessen has said that one of the over-riding themes of the current era in technology is that software is eating everything, and that is true. But when it comes to the media, social is eating everything — every form of media and content is becoming social or interactive, whether it wants to be or not, and Facebook’s dominance is a sign of that phenomenon accelerating.

What that means is figuring out how you can benefit from how media works in what Om has called the age of “democratized distribution.” Posting your content and comments on Facebook is only one way, and it may not be the best way, especially in terms of your long-term survival. Explore other options — whether it’s Pinterest or Snapchat or Tumblr. If you hand all of your content and relationships over to Facebook and assume that your work is done, then you have already lost.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Faramarz Hashemi