In April, 2016 Mark Zuckerberg said the following: “We’re entering this new golden age of video . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.” A little over a month later, according to a lawsuit, the company would follow up on complaints that it knew about about issues with its video metrics since 2015. Months after that, Facebook finally, very quietly, admitted that it misreported key metrics.
— Jason Kint (@jason_kint) October 17, 2018
Now advertisers are suing over the company allegedly cooking the books and not disclosing this miscalculation. And media people are fuming about this development. Rightfully so: The media industry over the last two-plus years has been punctuated by an awful euphemism known as the “pivot to video.” With traditional digital advertising revenue flatlining, Facebook managed to convince online publishers that video would be the next media goldmine. The company jumped headfirst into the medium–changing its algorithm to favor moving images, while convincing both advertisers and publishers alike that a long-term, video-first strategy would be the answer to their revenue woes.
For advertisers, video was simply another way to reach eyeballs. For publishers, this was something different: Media executives overhauled entire budgets to embrace the new trend and hired new teams to make quick, consumable videos that would theoretically get them more ad revenue. Writer and editor positions were cut, and layoffs ensued. For over a year, new headlines abound about media brands diverting resources into platform-first content. No one really knew what was working in the pivot to video, but they were assured that if they followed the instructions, things would pay off.
Facebook should be in jail, obviously, but let’s not forget about all the smooth-brained media execs who bought into the pivot to video when literally every person who works on the ground in media, or even just uses the internet every day, knew it was complete bullshit.
— Barry Petchesky (@barry) October 17, 2018
All this, it turns out, was allegedly predicated on a miscalculation–inflated metrics that Facebook knew about long before the problem got fixed. The company, according to the lawsuit, adopted a “‘no PR’ strategy” to avoid admitting to this screw-up.
If you missed it: today it was confirmed that Facebook massively & knowingly inflated its video-view statistics, which had the DIRECT consequence of 90% of media orgs firing writers in favor of expensive video producers, who also got fired when it turned out video was worthless https://t.co/WqdAUBIe6L
— Chris Conroy (@dyfl) October 17, 2018
Facebook, for its part, denies that it ever knowingly reported false metrics. I reached out to the company for further comment and will update this post if I hear back.
In 2015, John Herrman wrote for the Awl about various editorial projects that platforms were playing around with, in an attempt to better control centralize the media ecosystem. The idea was to create apps and projects that would blur the line between platform and publisher. Though the move to video was only a whisper then, it was clear that a big change was on the horizon. He wrote:
Publications large and small but especially large spent the last few years in a sort of para-economy, watching their audiences and sometimes revenues explode as the result of informal partnerships with social platforms, which were happy to let these outsiders hustle to adapt all manner of writing and imagery and video to their new contexts. The self-pitying/aggrandizing explanation for the platforms’ annexation of media attention would be that the last few years represent a sort of free-booting period during which media gave Facebook no-strings content in exchange for attention, which was converted into revenue in a system of advertising Facebook was simultaneously intent on destroying.
And indeed Facebook did destroy it. What followed was media companies trying to regain their footing by following the platform’s lead.
It’s news like today’s that highlights the real-world impact of large tech platforms and their dominance over content distribution. While it’s true that the advertising ecosystem was shifting, it’s also true that hundreds of people lost their jobs, and it’s looking more and more like that was due to a business-model whim predicated on faulty metrics.
Advertisers are banding together now–trying to get monetary justice for the alleged damage Facebook caused–but what about those on the publishers’ side? Will they get their jobs back?