Banning Ads Is Nice, but the Problem Is Facebook’s Underlying Model

So Facebook will ban fake news sites from their ads network, as will Google, which shows you exactly how hard it would have been to do this six months ago. But in any case, problem solved, right?

Unfortunately, no. Fake sites that get traffic can get on other ad networks, or go the malware route, or find one of the million other ways to turn eyeballs into cash. It will be a bit harder, I suppose, but it’s not as if having a fake news factory is a high overhead business.

But even if all ad incentives were eliminated, we are still left with the real problem, which is that Facebook’s model for news distribution is not suited for news distribution or anything like it.

Let’s review. The way you get your stories is this:

  • You read a small card with a headline and a description of the story on it.
  • You are then prompted to rate the card, by liking it or sharing them or commenting on it.
  • This then is pushed out to your friends, who can in turn complete the same process.

This might be a decent scheme for a headline rating system. It’s pretty lousy for news though.

If you think about the difference between this and blogging, it’s instructive. While I know for a fact many people jump to the comments section without fully reading my blog posts, you’ll notice that the way we structure things here on the blog is not:

  • Blog title
  • Comments box
  • An invisible but implied link to the blog post body, opening in a new window

but rather

  • Blog title
  • Blog body
  • Comments box

which is because our assumption is that you read the post first, top to bottom, then you comment and maybe share. We also think that reading — not commenting — is the main dish here.  This is a good model, and the interface is structured around it. It led to a much higher level of discourse (again, speaking generally) in the mid-aughts than the things that replaced it.

Facebook, on the other hand, doesn’t think the content is the main dish. Instead, it monetizes other people’s content. The model of Facebook is to try to use other people’s external content to build engagement on its site. So Facebook has a couple of problems.

First, Facebook could include whole articles, except for the most part they can’t, because they don’t own the content they monetize. (Yes, there are some efforts around full story embedding, but again, this is not evident on the stream as you see it today). So we get this weird (and think about it a minute, because it is weird) model where you get the headline and a comment box and if you want to read the story you click it and it opens up in another tab, except you won’t click it, because Facebook has designed the interface to encourage you to skip going off-site altogether and just skip to the comments on the thing you haven’t read.

Second, Facebook wants to keep you on site anyway, so they can serve you ads. Any time you spend somewhere else reading is time someone else is serving you ads instead of them and that is not acceptable.

And so again, I want you to try and look at this Facebook interface with new eyes. It is literally a headline, a description, and a series of prompts asking you to react to the headline and description, and unless you think of it as a headline rating system it is really quite odd:


And so when Facebook says things like — it’s not our software, it’s just the way users act, well I’m confused. This card is designed to teach users how to act, and with the help of their data scientists, it does that effectively. Because of issues around content licensing and their ad revenue model, they designed it to have users comment and react to stories they hadn’t read. I don’t think you get to turn around then and say, well it’s the users that aren’t doing due diligence on the stories.

Facebook is one of the biggest companies in the world with the smartest UX designers in the world. If they wanted their users to be critical readers, they would have made very different choices. They didn’t, and bad things happened. And now maybe we can all do better.


4 thoughts on “Banning Ads Is Nice, but the Problem Is Facebook’s Underlying Model

  1. Ha. I just uhh shared the last paragraph on Facebook #irony of sharing the paragraph i wanted ppl to read even if they don’t click…reproducing the cycle! Brilliant and simply laid out Mike. Thanks

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