And we come to Ezra Klein. The great Ezra Klein of Wapo and msnbc. The man who, while a partisan, does not try to keep his own set of facts. He founded Vox. Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of interacting with screens from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.
And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. To be fair their top headline right now is "How a bill made it through the worst Congress ever." Which is better than "you can't clean your jeans by freezing them."
The jeans story is their most read story today. Followed by "What microsoft doesn't get about tablets" and "Is '17 People' really the best West Wing episode?"
It's hard to tell who's to blame. But someone should fix this shit.
Here's where I disagree — it is not hard to tell who is to blame for the fact that the jeans story (which is a great, interesting, informative story) got more readers than Andrew Prokop's excellent feature on the DATA Act. Facebook is to blame.
As of writing, the jeans story has been shared 1,062 times on Facebook while the DATA Act story has been shared just 242 times. That's why the jeans story has been read by more people. We featured the DATA Act story much more prominently on our home page, but these days the bulk of web traffic is driven by social media and the bulk of social traffic is driven by Facebook.
The trend toward Facebook being the home page for the internet isn't all bad. Facebook drives a lot of traffic to a lot of stories. Some of those stories are very serious (like the over 6,300 people who shared my short guide to Capital in the 21st Century) and some of them are great-but-not-super-important like the jeans story. And some of the stories are garbage. There's an absurdly misleading map that's been shared over 78,000 times — far more popular than our debunking of the map will ever be.
But for better or for worse, traffic on the internet right now is all about Facebook sharing behavior. And here's a key point. Facebook doesn't work like Twitter. On Twitter if you share something, your followers see it. On Facebook, what is seen is driven by an algorithm that Facebook controls — if they wanted to promote more hard news they could do it.
Sharing, in turn, is in part about human nature. Lifestyle stories, celebrity stories, lists, quizzes (crossword puzzles), and meme images (funny pages), and servicey items have always been popular forms of media and it's no surprise those things are popular on Facebook too. But sharing is in part about Facebook's algorithms. When I share a story on my Facebook page, it doesn't automatically go out to everyone who's liked me. The number of people who get served any given article is determined by Facebook. The Facebook Gods smiled upon my sharing of "Buzzfeed's founder used to write Marxist theory and it explains Buzzfeed perfectly" and I hope the Gods will be as friendly to my share of Max Fisher's brilliant 4,000 word explanation of the endless political crisis in Thailand.
But, frankly, my experience as a veteran professional in this field is that the Facebook Gods will not smile on Max's Thailand piece. It doesn't have the key triggers of emotion, personalization, and identity-formation that drive success on Facebook.
If Facebook executives don't like a world in which those are the kind of stories people read, they should do something about it. Until then, we in the media are going to keep doing what we've always done — try to publish a balanced mix of content that appeals to a range of people and sensibilities and hits different kinds of notes.