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The consumption of news -- that formerly-respected category of information outside of humorous cat and music videos that impacts hundreds of millions of peoples' lives -- could be substantially improved by new methods of subscription offered online. Unfortunately, that's not happening. Numbers from web traffic analysts Hitwise released tonight indicate that almost nothing has changed in 10 years when it comes to popular consumption of news online. The big portals and search engines, delivering their version of news, remain in control. That's bad for independent thinking and human free will.
If you were hoping that a new world of web technology would empower free-thinking people to subscribe to diverse sources of information and analysis about the world's news, then Facebook, albeit a little awkward as a news-reading platform today, may be your best hope.
On Monday we argued that Facebook's call to users to subscribe to news outlets on the social network could soon make it the world's leading news-reading platform. Hitwise picked up on that story and ran some numbers today. Their conclusion: Facebook already drives 350 times as much traffic to other websites in the "news and media" category (3.5%) as Google Reader does (.01%). Perhaps more importantly, though, Facebook, Google News (1.4%). and Google Reader together account for less than 5% of news sites' total traffic. The #1, 2 and 3 drivers of traffic to news sites? Google, Yahoo and MSN - portals and search engines where the editorial judgement is made by centralized algorithms and powerful front-page editors.
So Facebook is the web's most popular subscription-enabled place to read news; be it from links shared by friends or by becoming a Fan of news organizations like Facebook is now encouraging. That doesn't mean that Facebook is yet a better news-reading service than dedicated RSS readers are. But it has certainly caught on as a way to read news far better than dedicated news-reading software has. In fact, it may offer the only meaningful chance that the technologies of online self-publishing and simple subscription are going to change the world like they ought to.
According to Hitwise's Heather Hopkins tonight:
Last week, Google Reader accounted for .01% of upstream visits to News and Media websites, about the same level as a year ago. Google News accounted for 1.39% of visits and Facebook 3.52%. Facebook was the #4 source of visits to News and Media sites last week, after Google, Yahoo! and msn. News and Media is the #11 downstream industry after Facebook, receiving 3.69% of the social networking site's traffic. To offer a comparison, 6% of downstream traffic from Facebook went to Shopping and Classifieds last week and 6% to Business and Finance and 15% went to Entertainment websites (YouTube in particular).
We detailed on Monday a number of ways in which Facebook was already the best place for millions of people to read and share news, but when looking at these Hitwise stats it's important to realize that it's traffic that's being counted. So full feeds inside Google Reader deliver the whole story, whereas Facebook snippets require that readers click all the way through to the source site. None the less, a multiple of 350 is a multiple of 350.
Google News, the 2nd leading news reader according to Hitwise, made some nice changes this week around starring stories to track over time. That could increase its marketshare. But Do-It-Yourself subscription to diverse selections of news sources may be contrary to the contemporary human condition, as desirable as it may be. As web standards guru Jeffrey Zeldman said in an unrelated post this week about the closed nature of the iPad: "The bulk of humanity doesn't want a computing experience it can tinker with; it wants a computing experience that works." The same could probably be said for news about the world, and look where it's gotten us.
I'm not saying Facebook is a better way to read news than through an RSS reader. I'm saying no one uses RSS readers, even after years of their being as obviously life-changing as many of us know they are. Instead, people are beginning to use Facebook to read news. That's good, because platforms that encourage independent subscription instead of just consumption of pre-selected news are very important.
Facebook Could Be Our Only Hope (Online)
The big story is of course that the vast, vast majority (like 95%) of traffic to news sites doesn't come from news readers like Google Reader, Google News or Facebook at all. It comes from search engines and portals. Google, Yahoo and MSN. That's what these numbers appear to indicate. Sure there's a long tail of other sites like Twitter, Digg, HuffingtonPost etc. but it's hard to imagine all those other sources at less than 1% each are adding up to much in aggregate. (We've asked Hitwise and await their response.)
Hitwise reported in September that of traffic leaving Twitter, for example, only 3.4% of it went to News and Media sites.
In other words, consumption of online news may not really have changed much for almost anyone in the last 10 years. You, dear reader who probably came here from Twitter or Google Reader or Facebook (maybe Digg if we're lucky), appear to remain part of a freakishly small minority.
That minority may be disproportionately powerful, driving market trends (maybe) and running circles around information streams online (definitely), but the experience of finding out news about what's going on in the world may not be a structurally different thing for almost anyone else, as it is for us.
That doesn't bode well for the long-tail of publishers, small voices given volume by easy publishing tools online. The subscription tools to make those long-tail voices a regular part of our news life have arrived - but no one is using them. Except Facebook, in growing numbers.
Facebook is the player to watch. Facebook - the dreaded privacy-violating, Farmville-drenched, closed-data, social networking megalith (which is also fun to use and great in many ways) - could be the web's best hope for transforming the world through the power of online syndication and subscription.
So what are you going to do, Facebook? Are you going to move news about the world to an honored and important place on the site, are you going to reverse your December move pushing Fan-page subscriptions irrevocably public (a hostile environment for subscription) or are you just going to post an occasional post to the company's blog about how you can use Facebook to subscribe to news feeds - through a tedious process?
I'm hoping Facebook will take this opportunity and encourage its giant nation of users to add subscriptions to diverse news sources to their news feeds of updates from friends and family. That could deliver a tangible improvement to the world's information landscape, like the internet was always supposed to do.
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