By Kevin O'Keefe

Could Facebook be the future of news?

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I remember a few years ago when I heard that 45% of Americans were getting news on Facebook. I thought it sheer insanity. Facebook was for idle chit chat and gossip, wasn’t it?

No more. Facebook’s newsfeed is getting smarter and smarter writes Anthony Wing Kosner (@akosner), a tech contributor to Forbes.

This end-of-Facebook talk is way premature. Despite reports that young people are spurning the social network, other indicators point to rising engagement levels among its 1.3 billion users. As of the end of March, 63% of those users login on any given day and 50% are on six days a week. Facebook stock turned a corner early in 2013 and has barely looked back.

And all those users addicted to Facebook are making its Newsfeed smarter.

Facebook has moved beyond the public-facing metrics of its own making—the likes, shares, comments and clicks—into more sophisticated signals of user engagement.

Rather than a raw, unfiltered Newsfeed, Kosner says users are receiving a curated one that is constantly being improved through engineering and machine learning.

Like Google with its algorithms presenting each of us distinctly the most valuable information on search, Facebook’s presenting us what we’re looking for.

Facebook’s Will Cathcart, who heads Facebook’s product teams working on the Newsfeed, told Will Oremus (@willoremus) Slate’s senior technology, that when a user clicks in there are up to 1,500 different posts that could be placed at the top of their newsfeed.

The secret behind Facebook’s gains, says Cathcart, is machine learning and lots and lots of user testing.

When users click on a link in their news feed Facebook looks very carefully at what happens next. If you’re someone who, every time you see an article from the New York Times, you not only click on it, but go offsite and stay offsite for a while before you come back, we can probably infer that you in particular find articles from the New York Times more relevant.

I’m finding a fair amount of news in my Facebook feed of late. Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I am more apt to receive a story from the Seattle Times or The New York Times from Facebook than I am from anywhere else — including those newspapers.

When I tell people of the quality of news stories I receive via Facebook, they look at me like I have two heads. “All I get is garbage and promoted content.”

They’re inactive users, per Kosner.

What do you recommend to new users for whom you have little user data to train your classifier? This is known as the long tail problem because it is far easier to make accurate recommendations for active users who follow popular topics than for inactive users who are interested in niche subjects.

Facebook isn’t stopping with its news to the public via its Newsfeed. Last week Facebook started a newswire for journalists.

From Facebook:

FB Newswire is a resource that’s designed to make it even easier for you to find, share and embed original, newsworthy content from Facebook in the media you produce. Look forward to first-person photos, videos, and status updates posted publicly on Facebook from the front lines of newsworthy events around the world which have been selected and verified by Storyful’s editorial team.

Like FB Newswire here on Facebook or follow along on Twitter at @FBNewswire for real-time updates and alerts.

Nuts? Hardly, when you have over 1.3 billion amateur reporters world-wide. Who else is better equipped to capture local news and provide it to journalists? When was the last time you didn’t see an amateur photo or video accompanying a breaking news story in the mainstream media?

Not only does Facebook have any army of “reporters,” but it has the growing data and algorithms to get journalists (including bloggers) exactly what they may be looking for – by local, subject, and source. And the news is coming from people they trust — their “friends.”

What’s this all mean for lawyers? At least a couple things.

One, if you don’t expand your friend base and increase your interaction on Facebook, the quality of information you’ll receive will be lacking.

The majority of people I am connected to on Facebook are business people, lawyers, bloggers, authors, and journalists. By interacting with these folks, I receive quality news and info, both penned by them and that shared by them.

Second, news and information moves socially. People are as apt to receive insight penned by lawyers via social networks as they are by going to a lawyer’s website or blog.

If you, as a lawyer, are not active on social networks such as Facebook, there may not be enough data to let Facebook know who may trust you as a source of information. Your posts and articles will be left out of people’s Newsfeeds.

Think Facebook’s becoming one of the most trusted sources in news is unlikely. Don’t bet against Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook’s stock is rising with its ad revenues, especially in mobile. Facebook, per Kosner, had 6% of worldwide digital ad revenue in 2013 (expected to rise to 7% in 2014) and 15% of worldwide mobile ad revenue (expected to rise to 22% in 2014.)

Traditional news sources have neither the technology nor capital to compete with Facebook. Let alone all of the users contributing and sharing news and information.

It’s possible Facebook could be the future of news for you — and your clients.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Jay Cameron.

Kevin O'Keefe
About the Author

Trial lawyer turned legal tech entrepreneur, I am the founder and CEO of LexBlog, a legal blog community of over 30,000 blog publishers, worldwide. LexBlog’s publishing platform is used on a subscription basis by over 18,000 legal professionals, including the largest law firm in each India, China and the United States.

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