Jul 9, 2015 · 7 minutes

Two of the biggest tech stories in 2015 are the increasing power of Facebook's algorithms and YouTube's uncertain future.

And now these two trends have collided in epic fashion as Facebook may be leveraging its algorithms to help kill YouTube – or at least steal an enormous portion of its audience.

We've reported extensively on Facebook's News Feed algorithms, which automatically sort through everything published on Facebook so it can present users with the content they might want to see most. In theory, it's a helpful way for users to make sense of the enormous abundance of text, photos, and videos that are posted everyday.

In practice, however, many worry that the algorithm doesn't operate with the best interests of users in mind - it operates in ways that are aligned with Facebook's larger business ambitions like… a push into video. (More on that in a moment).


For example, a few years back Facebook began to insert fewer posts that originated from publishers' pages - like Pando’s - into people's News Feeds because the social network claimed that users preferred to see posts from their friends. That may be true, but more importantly this move enriched Facebook’s bottom line. That’s because when the News Feed began to downplay posts from publisher pages it encouraged more publishers to buy ads on Facebook. Intentional or not, this reflects a direct correlation between Facebook’s revenue and a tweak to its News Feed algorithm.

Another big tech story of 2015 revolves around the fate of one of the most important platforms in the history of the web: YouTube.

For years, YouTube was the first and last stop for everyday users to consume video. But as mobile video continues to come into its own as a popular, powerful, and lucrative medium, a slew of new and established competitors have thrown their hat in the ring as future leaders of digital video. This comes at the worst possible time for YouTube, when many in its community feel the site is no longer as “creator-friendly” as it once was

The most convincing contender for YouTube’s crown is Facebook, which in just the last year grew its video views from 1 billion a day to 4 billion a day. Granted, YouTube is still way out in front -- users are expected to watch 8 billion videos a day by the end of 2015 – but the astonishingly rapid growth of Facebook’s native video platform should be scary to YouTube, which until now has had few legitimate competitors in the user-generated video space.

And Facebook isn’t alone in looking to grab a chunk of YouTube’s business: On Snapchat, videos and longer photo collections have now outpaced stand-alone photos. Yahoo is looking to pivot Tumblr into a video platform and to use its huge cash stores to buy off some of YouTube’s biggest talents. Twitter is going full steam ahead with autoplay videos which will undoubtedly increase that service’s video market share. And upstarts like Vessel are experimenting with new distribution models that may be more lucrative for content producers.

But the big rival is Facebook. As for how Facebook became such a formidable video competitor so quickly, the dominant factor has been Facebook’s introduction of autoplay videos on mobile. When scrolling through a feed, videos uploaded natively to Facebook – as opposed to videos uploaded to YouTube first then embedded on Facebook – play automatically and without an annoying pre-roll ad. This has naturally led to far more views per native video than YouTube-embedded video on Facebook, which require users to click to view and then click again to expand the frame -- all after the user sits through an ad. This has in turn convinced more and more users to upload their clips directly to Facebook. According to Fortune, 70 percent of the videos on Facebook are uploaded directly to the service, rather than through a third party site like YouTube or Vimeo. That’s up from 25 percent less than a year and a half ago.

But according to an article published today by Slate’s Will Oremus, there may be another force at work helping to erode YouTube’s video growth: the same Facebook algorithms that have beguiled publishers for years.

In an article on “freebooting” – the term used when somebody rips another person’s popular YouTube video and posts it natively on Facebook to rack up even higher viewer counts in some cases than the original clip – Oremus writes, “As always when Facebook’s News Feed algorithms appear to dovetail suspiciously with the company’s strategic goals, there are murmurs that the confluence of interests may not be entirely accidental.”

That’s a sly way of suggesting that it’s not just Facebook’s user interface that drives more viewership to native Facebook videos as opposed to YouTube embeds, but that the News Feed algorithm specifically favors native Facebook videos – ones in which Facebook shares in the ad revenue.

Unfortunately, Facebook’s algorithms are largely a black box to users. And even though Facebook repeatedly says that the News Feed responds to user stimulus – likes, comments, etc. – we know that Facebook intentionally tweaks its News Feed to help create certain conditions. How? Because the company says as much in occasional blog posts explaining the thinking behind these tweaks. (Though it’s highly unlikely that Facebook shares explanations for all of its News Feed tweaks. My guess is, it’s not even close).

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with tweaking a site’s underlying technology to benefit the business. I only wish that Facebook would cop to these practices instead of blaming “user behavior” every time the algorithm doesn’t operate the way journalists -- and yes, everyday users -- would like it to.

Of course maybe there is something “wrong,” so to speak, with how Facebook manipulates its algorithms, and there’s a specific reason Facebook is so cagey when it comes to transparency around these tweaks. I wonder – assuming Facebook does tweak its algorithms to surface native Facebook videos, something which, anecdotally at least, appears to be true -- if by using its dominance in the field of social media to enrich its video business and beat down competitors that it might not be subject to antitrust litigation down the road, at least in Europe. Google ran into similar problems in the EU after it leveraged its search dominance to funnel users into other Google-owned products like Google Shopping.

If so, this is one of many ways Facebook is just a few years behind Google in terms of its power over what content the world’s Internet users see, how it wields that power, and how it views itself within the broader digital landscape. In a few years, I could see Mark Zuckerberg pulling a similar move as Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who announced one day that maybe his company should stop pretending it’s a force of good, and good alone, in the world. I appreciate the guy’s honesty, at least. Until that time, Facebook still believes it's saving the world, one Ice Bucket Challenge video at a time.

Many now fear that, because Facebook has begun courting news publishers to publish content directly to Facebook, that not only gives the platform control over how content is presented, distributed, and monetized; it might also incentivize Facebook to tweak its News Feed again so that these direct-to-Facebook posts – from which Facebook gets to keep a healthy chunk of the associated ad revenue – will be automatically prioritized over other stories that live elsewhere on the web. It’s not hard to imagine Facebook explaining that users prefer these “Instant Articles” because, seeing as how they’re hosted on Facebook’s servers, they load faster than stories hosted elsewhere.

This would create a frightening future wherein the only way to reach meaningful audiences is to publish directly on Facebook, which through its algorithms would assert massive control over who sees your stories and how often. If that occurs, don’t expect News Feeds to display stories that are openly critical of Facebook -- or its bigger ad partners -- but that doesn’t mean they’re not being written.

It appears that YouTube may be learning what publishers have known for some time now: That Facebook’s algorithms are enormously powerful; and that Zuckerberg isn’t content to dominate social media, he wants to dominate every distribution channel for every type of content on the planet. And so every media business, whether it’s a platform like YouTube or a publisher like Buzzfeed, has reason to fear the Facebook.


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