Fearing Facebook

It used to be publishers spent time worrying about Google. That’s still mostly true, but you’ll also start to hear murmurs of concern about the Internet’s new Goliath: Facebook.
Let’s face it, with 600 million members and growing, Facebook stands poised to define the next iteration of the Web, as it moves from a search-based paradigm to a social-connectivity model. The question is whether publishers should eye Facebook as warily as they did Google.
For Todd Sawicki, the chief revenue officer of Cheezburger Network, which runs the popular time-wasters I Can Has Cheezburger and Failblog, the answer is clearly yes. He told DIGIDAY’s Digital Publishing Summit last week that Facebook is a “data Trojan horse.” None of Cheezburger’s sites carry Facebook’s nearly ubiquitous Like buttons out of concern they’re simply a way for Facebook to collect more data on their audience. (They do have share buttons.) Cheezburger is also staying away from Facebook Connect. The problem, Sawicki said, is Facebook draws people away from publishers to discuss the content. An article that gets liked on a publisher’s site is then broadcast on Facebook’s site and used to keep people there, rather than send them back to the publisher.
“Facebook is about helping Facebook,” Sawicki said later. “We want to control our own destiny.
At some level this can sound like a bizarre conspiracy theory. As one publisher noted to me, “It’s not like Zuckerberg is staying up thinking how he can take money from Cheezburger.” But it’s also sensible. Nothing is free in life. Facebook’s spread Like buttons all over the web and is collecting reams of data on consumer preferences. Publishers don’t get to keep that data. Sawicki believes a Facebook ad network is a foregone conclusion — and it will use this data to power it and, in some cases, compete with the very publishers that were the source.
Look at Amazon, Sawicki said. The company isn’t a publisher per se, but it acts in many ways like one. You’d think a transaction-oriented company like it would be all over Facebook’s Like buttons. But you won’t find them on Amazon. That’s because it’s data-savvy, in Sawicki’s estimation.
“I can’t believe publishers aren’t up in arms about this,” he said.
This is a tough one. Publishers are starting to see serious traffic from social media, the largest source being Facebook. Taylor Gray, svp of marketing at the Huffington Post, noted at the same conference that social media is now a third of that site’s traffic, equal to what it gets from search. That’s thanks to getting its content into the Facebook viral loop.
“It’s stupid to ignore,” he said. This is how people are operating on the Internet. People are on their social networks all the time.”
Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti believes there’s little choice for publishers in this new world of Facebook. The only question is whether they’re good at it or not. Buzzfeed gets half its traffic from social media. When publishers lived in a Google-dominated world, Peretti said, some got good at SEO and other complained. The same will take place in a Facebook world.
“There will be a group of sites that figure out how social distribution works,” he said.

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