Facebook Domain Insights: Is sharing not caring?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve swung from one extreme to the other. We loved the Facebook vs Clickbait announcements, but we’ve never been too hot on the way their algorithmic changes seem to narrow your outlook. We’ve always been cautious about anything that gives a single platform too much power (especially when headlines are manipulated to the point that the story stops being worth anything), and that’s pretty much how we feel about the latest announcements concerning Facebook Domain Insights.

Facebook’s decision to turn Domain Insights off feels like a power play that publishers stand no chance of winning

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What is Facebook Domain Insights, and why the controversy?

We first became aware of changes happening to the way in which Facebook shares its data last week, and we’ve already made an official announcement about how it concerns our customers. However, for those who aren’t sure what Facebook Domain Insights are and how they might affect your content-related business, here’s what you need to know.

Domain Insights is a tool that allows publishers to see how Facebook users interact with the content they’ve published. For example, if you were to publish a blog and then post about it on Facebook, anyone clicking on the post and then reading the piece on your website would be providing data to Domain Insights, which was then made available to you.

There are other Facebook tools that provide publishers with similar information, and anyone accustomed to using Facebook’s Business Manager platforms will recognise them. We’re talking about App Insights and Page Insights here, although neither of these seem to have been affected by these recent changes.

Why the controversy? Well, simply put, the world’s largest social platform has decided to turn off access to that data for all new publishers. That means that anyone hoping to set up a new publishing site and make use of Facebook’s data to learn more about the audience they’re connecting with won’t be able to.

Why would they do this? Well, we’ve gone into our own hypothesis in depth below, but the answer is that nobody’s sure at the moment. The likelihood seems to be that Facebook sees its Instant Articles platform as being the future of editorial publishing on the social web.

Is it a permanent move? Nobody seems entirely sure yet. “We unfortunately won’t be accepting new domains for now,” seems to be the unofficial word from Camp Zuckerberg. It’s a case of ‘watch this space’.

Why should this bother anyone other than publishers? 

In our humble opinion, this is another rather clumsy step towards what we might call (if we were in the mood to channel Dr Evil) “world domination”. Modern journalism faces difficulties in two key areas at the moment: monetisation (which is nothing new) and control through distribution. While both are inseparable in many ways, it’s the latter of these that this Domain Insights controversy plays directly into.

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Historically, Facebook has always been relatively open when it comes to sharing data with third parties. This helps publishers better understand their readers and, theoretically, create content that resonates with them. Using data, they are able to get a reasonably good idea of what their audience wants, and – certainly with a tool as robust as Content Insights – a genuine understanding of how they interact with their articles.

Facebook’s decision to turn Domain Insights off feels like a power play that publishers stand no chance of winning, especially when you consider how keen the social giant is to funnel them into its Instant Articles (IA) programme. In a future dominated by IA, nobody ever needs to leave the platform – everything will be delivered to them within Facebook’s own sleek interface, surfaced for them by an algorithm that “understands” exactly what they want. No need to worry or even think. It’s all done for you, and everything is thoroughly agreeable.

Taken to extremes, it sounds like a world where nobody challenges anything. You have no need to leave the comfort zone, so you needn’t confront anything unsavoury. Your opinion is played back to you in an endless comforting loop.

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Meanwhile, publications that rely hugely on advertising revenue (which is pretty much all of them) are starved of the ability to fund the work they do. That’s not entirely Facebook’s fault, of course: as John Oliver pointed out recently, we’re all complicit in draining journalism of its funding. However, hobbling them until they agree to publish on IA Facebook’s platform alone is a surefire way of leaving them with even less to go around.

And that’s exactly what the closure of Domain Insights feels like. As an example, one relatively new company that uses Content Insights to measure its efficacy gets approximately 80% of its traffic via Facebook. To a new publisher like this, it must feel as though Facebook is saying, “sure, you can have access to all the data you want, but only if you publish your content with us. And no, we couldn’t care less about how you fund what you’re doing.”

In the long term, it seems like a very strange strategy indeed. Facebook may be the world’s largest social platform, but – as it is so very keen to tell us all – it is not a publisher. It makes no content of its own. By effectively starving those that create content for it, what can it hope for in the end? A massive slice of nothing?

That’s why we’re hoping that this is a decision they’ll reverse. For the sake of those starting out in the publishing world, and for the sake of anyone who likes the diversity of editorial control overseen by humans rather than algorithms, please Facebook, remember that sharing is caring.

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