Stop Relying on Internet Giants for Your Content

Sites like Facebook and Google exert massive control over what we read and see. Maybe it’s time to start bypassing them.
Facebook Screenshot
(Spencer E HoltawayCC BY-ND 2.0)

The Babylon Bee is a satirical news site in the vein of The Onion that comes from a right-leaning (i.e., conservative and Christian) perspective. (Sample articles include “Man Recommits Life To Christ Just To Put Altar Call Out Of Its Misery,” “Christian Feminists Replacing Hymnals With Hyrnals,” “Christian Radio Station Accidentally Plays Good Song,” and “Breaking: Hazmat On Scene Where College Student May Have Been Exposed To Opposing Worldview.”)

The site was created by Adam Ford, who reflected on his past ownership of the site in a recent piece for The American Conservative. Much of the article is devoted to the trouble his site ran into with Facebook and Google due, in Ford’s view, to The Babylon Bee’s right-leaning focus. Here’s the crux of Ford’s criticism of the online giants:

These two experiences helped bring about a disturbing epiphany for me. Here’s the short version: Facebook and Google are extremely liberal and they have massive control over what information reaches billions of people every day. Facebook the company is structured so Mark Zuckerberg — liberal Silicon Valley billionaire — has nearly complete control. Google the company is structured so Larry Page and Sergey Brin — liberal Silicon Valley billionaires — have nearly complete control. These are not co-ops. Facebook has hooked the world onto their service and now controls what information we see as we mindlessly scroll through our feeds all day. Google has a monopoly on search and controls what information we see when we ask any questions about anything. Almost everybody knows this, but it isn’t until somebody starts talking about it that people consider the implications.

We like to lull ourselves to sleep with the notion that Facebook and Google are controlled by some mindless, unbiased algorithm that would never do us wrong. But algorithms are programmed by people, and people have biases. Even if a legitimate attempt were made at impartiality, people cannot help but operate according to their biases. This is human nature. Our worldview informs our actions. Facebook’s and Google’s worldviews are very similar — they believe that Christianity and conservatism are not only untrue, but harmful. Homophobic. Bigoted. These same people create the programs that decide what news, opinions, content, and all other information everyone sees every day.

He then goes on to lament the current state of online publishing, and the fact that if you want others to find your content, you must jump through Facebook and Google’s hoops:

The majority of people get their news from Facebook. Because of this, publishers everywhere base everything they do around appeasing Facebook. Especially for any new venture launching into this environment — it’s Facebook or nothing. Facebook is where all the people are, so do whatever they say! Make sure to share status updates — no, links — no, images — no, videos — no, live videos — whatever they say! And don’t you dare do anything that might irk them or transgress their progressive values, or they might cut you off!

The majority of people go straight to Google whenever they need to find information about anything, so publishers bend over backwards to be as Google-friendly as possible. Jump through hoops every time they update their algo! Mobile-first! Implement AMP! Whatever they say — can’t lose that search traffic! And don’t you dare tick them off, or they’ll bury you in the search results and suspend your AdSense account — then you’re done!

You might find Ford’s reasoning specious, maybe even offensive. You might think there’s nothing wrong with Facebook, Google, et al. censoring sites like The Babylon Bee, especially if you’re liberal/progressive yourself. But Ford is right in one significant way: Facebook and Google do, in fact, exert a massive amount of control over the information we see because of their unrivaled market share.

The fact that so much control over information lies in the hands of a few massive companies — companies that have engaged in dubious practices and betrayed their users’ trust on numerous occasions (e.g., Facebook’s recent privacy debacle) — should be disconcerting, regardless of your political leanings.

But if you’re an online publisher, you have an additional reason for concern: not only do Facebook and Google wield a lot of power, but they do so in ways that often seem capricious. Furthermore, their changes in direction and strategy can have wide-ranging effects that are difficult, if not impossible, to predict.

Of course, Facebook and Google can make whatever changes they want to their systems, but their algorithmic tweaks can literally wipe out entire businesses — even those that might’ve been doing everything right. Consider LittleThings, which relied heavily on Facebook traffic and had to shut down in February after losing an estimated 75% of their traffic when Facebook updated their algorithm. (They were able to relaunch in April after being purchased by RockYou Media.)

Now you might point out that it’s foolish to rely so heavily on another company for your success and existence. That it makes no sense to set up a business with a single point of failure like that. Those are valid criticisms, but in today’s environment, where so many people use Facebook and Google (and for perfectly legitimate reasons because Facebook and Google have been very good at what they do), such reliance can be a necessary evil.

Ford’s perspectives on Silicon Valley liberalism aside, he makes a good suggestion for those who use Facebook and Google as their primary channels for finding news and content:

The idea of separating completely from Facebook and Google is terrifying to many people, so if that’s too much for you, let me suggest another smaller step: visit websites directly, instead of when Facebook and Google tell you to. Are you old enough to remember when people used to do this? People used to actually type website domain names into their browser’s address bar to go to their favorite internet locations.

Has a website earned your trust? Visit that website directly and regularly, not just when Zuck decides to put them in your feed, not just when you enter a search and Google decides to spit them back out as a valid option. What sites have earned your trust? Go visit a few right now, and remember to visit them every day. That way you can push back against the centralization of the internet.

I am old enough to remember when people relied on bookmarks, RSS, and “curators” who could be trusted to highlight interesting and worthwhile content. Those things are still around and they’re still awesome. I use RSS every day, and sites like Kottke, Daring Fireball, Waxy, MetaFilter, and Boing Boing are constantly revealing new and interesting things that I’d never find on Facebook. And don’t forget email newsletters, which have experienced something of a renaissance in recent years thanks to services like Substack and TinyLetter.

Taking active steps like these to find information and content gives one a sense of ownership and responsibility. What’s more, it gives me a sense of discovery that hearkens back to my earliest forays online, when it felt like the future had arrived and the world was at my fingertips — when the online world still felt a bit magical.

Of course, it takes time to find such sources and subscribe to them, as well as a certain level of technical proficiency that many people don’t have or don’t want to think about. That’s one advantage of using Facebook; it requires very little effort on a user’s part to enjoy its benefits (which is a testament to Facebook’s designers). But therein lies the problem, which Ford’s piece hints at.

Facebook is an essentially passive activity. You have to take whatever it chooses to give you, but what it gives you might not actually be worth anything, and sometimes, it’s not entirely clear why you’re seeing what you’re seeing or how to take better control of what you see. Here’s a simple example: You can set your newsfeed to display posts in chronological order, but only for awhile. Facebook will eventually switch it back to whatever order that it thinks is best, most engaging, etc.

(To their credit, Facebook has addressed some concerns by changing their newsfeed to focus on more personal updates, and they’ve ditched the “trending news” feature which was criticized for highlighting fake news. However, these updates are the same type of updates that have the aforementioned negative effects on publishers.)

Moving away from Facebook et al. can be terrifying in a different way for online publishers. As my friend Luke put it as we were discussing Ford’s article (ironically enough, on Facebook): “I do wonder, though: How many content creators on the web, given the chance, would choose to go back to the web of ten years ago, where you wrote something, tossed it up on your blog, and then said ten Hail Marys hoping Andrew Sullivan or someone would randomly discover it and honor you with a link?”

He has a point. As much as I’d love to Opus’ articles to be regularly spotlighted by the movers and shakers (whoever they are), that’s just not going to happen. But it could be argued that we’ve just traded one set of gatekeepers for another, e.g., Facebook and Google’s almighty algorithms, which are not nearly as trustworthy, objective, or accessible as we might like.

One of my recurring themes on Opus as of late, and with regards to technology, has been that we must stop being passive in our use of technology (especially technology like social media that, by design, encourages us to be passive consumers). Furthermore, we must look past the marketing and start realizing that tech companies don’t have our best interests in mind. This goes doubly for services that don’t cost us anything to use.

But companies still must turn a profit to survive, and if they’re not charging for membership, they’ll make money some other way — which is why Facebook and Google get rich selling information about their users (i.e., you) to marketers, advertisers, and publishers.

I’m no luddite, and I’m not telling anyone to quit Facebook cold turkey (unless you really want to, in which case, more power to you). There are definitely benefits to using Facebook (e.g., keeping in touch with friends and family) and Google (e.g., search, email, online office software, photo storage). But in our information-saturated age, it behooves us to think about the information that comes in our lives — where it comes from, how and why we’re consuming it, and if there are better ways to do it all. And I’m increasingly convinced that bypassing Facebook and Google, if not entirely than at least to a regular and consistent extent, is becoming the better, wiser option.

If you do happen to be on the lookout for good stuff to read and think about, check out my “Weekend Reads” column, an ongoing Opus feature where I share approximately 10 – 12 articles that are particularly interesting and thought-provoking.

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