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Facebook’s USA Today strategy

NEW YORK — When Facebook added hashtags last year and almost no one used them, you might have thought the social network would give up on trying to become more like Twitter. You’d have thought wrong.

Today it doubled down on its bid to rival Twitter as a hub for real-time public conversations about the news, adding a “Trending” section that highlights topics your friends and others are talking about at any given time. This is not a minor change: Facebook has placed the section at the top right of its main news feed, which is prime real estate on the page. It’s the clearest signal yet that the company is serious about becoming a destination for news, not just a place to share photos with your friends and family.

The challenge to Twitter is obvious from the first line of Facebook’s press release about the new product:

Facebook is a space where people from all over the world gather every day to share their thoughts and participate in real-time conversations, from the highlights of the Golden Globes to the passing of Nelson Mandela.

That’s actually a perfect description of Twitter, if you think about it. But it’s part of what Facebook wants to become. Here’s how Facebook describes Trending:

To the right of your News Feed, you’ll see a list of topics that have recently spiked in popularity. The list is personalized, including topics based on things you’re interested in and what is trending across Facebook overall. Each topic is accompanied by a headline that briefly explains why it is trending. You can click on any headline to see the most interesting posts from your friends or Pages that are talking about that particular topic.

That’s different from Twitter’s trending topics, which can be tailored to a specific city or country, but are not personalized to you as an individual. This is one realm where Facebook believes it has an edge on Twitter. Whereas Twitter has always displayed tweets chronologically, Facebook has been working for years on figuring out exactly which posts you’re likely to be most interested in, and putting those at the top of your feed. Now it’s trying to apply that same type of knowledge to breaking news topics.

A first look at the feature suggests it has some promise, and also plenty of room for improvement. For one thing, the little Trending box is not visually compelling, despite its prime placement. If you don’t look closely, you might easily mistake it for an ad.

Then again, maybe that’s part of the point. Facebook has had great success with a model known as “native advertising,” in which ads intermingle with and aesthetically resemble the site’s main content. And surely Facebook has long-term plans to sell trending topics to advertisers, as Twitter already does. Still, the feature’s unobtrusiveness might keep it from being a big hit with users, at least in the short term.

As for the actual trending topics, Facebook’s initial set of guesses as to what I’d be most interested in are hit-and-miss. The “Academy Awards” topic is probably one that’s universal, rather than personalized, while I assume the one about the Sacramento Kings accepting bitcoin is tailored to my own interest in the virtual currency. Meanwhile, I’m not sure just why Facebook thinks I’m interested in layoffs at J.C. Penney. My best guess is that it’s been watching me read a lot of Slate financial writer Matt Yglesias lately.

Clicking on the “Academy Awards” topic brings up a pretty decent roster of posts on the Oscars, led by one written by a Facebook friend of mine and followed by others from people and media outlets I don’t directly follow, like Leonardo DiCaprio, the Hollywood Reporter and the Tribeca Film Festival. (Facebook knows, of course, that I live in New York.) Clicking on the Sacramento Kings topic, meanwhile, brings up an ESPN story about the bitcoin deal, but then a bunch of stories about the Kings’ latest NBA game, about which I care not at all. Presumably, Facebook’s algorithms will learn from my behavior over time, and if I don’t click on the Sacramento basketball-game recaps it will know that I’m not a Kings fan.

For Facebook, this is partly about horning in on Twitter’s advertising business, which allows marketers to reach people based not only on their long-term interests but based on what they’re reading about, searching for, or watching at any given moment. But it’s also part of a much broader evolution of the site from a pure social network into a hybrid between a social network and a personalized news site. The “Trending” feature comes amid rumors that Facebook is also preparing a personalized news reader to take on the likes of Flipboard. Re/Code reports that the reader might be called “Paper” and could launch by the end of January.

Why is Facebook making such a big push into the news business? I suspect it’s because Zuckerberg and his team recognize that it can only go so far as a pure social network. A new study claims that teens are abandoning Facebook at a much greater rate than the company has let on. Whether those numbers accurate or not, the company is keenly aware that its status as the world’s social network of choice is under constant assault from an array of upstarts, some of which might capitalize on the public’s mistrust of Facebook’s privacy policies.

At the same time, Facebook is rapidly gaining ground as a place for people to share news and links from around the Web. A Pew survey in November found that already 30 percent of Americans use Facebook to read news, more than any other site. Twitter was second at 16 percent. And an even more recent study by found that Facebook has been outpacing Reddit in the amount of traffic it sends to other sites. That may be thanks in part to a recent effort by Facebook to teach its algorithms to favor substantive, “high-quality” news stories over viral memes. For Facebook, explicitly positioning itself as a public news destination seems like a wise hedge against a potential fall from grace as a pseudo-private social-networking utility.

If you’re shaking your head and saying, “I would never use Facebook to read the news,” I hear you. I think a lot of people, especially avid news readers, are likely to continue to prefer visiting human-crafted news outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — or their own carefully curated Twitter timelines — to Facebook’s algorithmically generated mishmash.

At the same time, I think Facebook stands a real chance of capturing an ever-growing portion of people who don’t consider themselves news junkies. It requires far less effort, from the user’s standpoint, to pop over to Facebook now and then than it does to bookmark four different news sites and blogs, build an old-fashioned RSS reader, or to wade into Twitter’s raging river of links, jokes and snarky punditry. In other words, Facebook could become the USA Today of the 21st century — but on a near-global scale, with a readership in the billions rather than the millions.

That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario: Users will continue to largely ignore Facebook’s proliferating news features, and one day — when we’ve all moved on to Snapchat or whatever else — we’ll look back on these features as the boondoggles that distracted the company from the real threats to its core social-networking business.

Oremus is the lead blogger for Slate’s Future Tense, reporting on emerging technologies, tech policy and digital culture.

© 2013, Slate

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