Peter Coleman: How life might have been better without Facebook

Mar 01, 2021 at 06:52 pm by Staff

Now Facebook's back on board and everyone is patting themselves on the back for getting Australia's mandatory code through without more bloodshed, a question.

Might newsmedia actually be better off without it?

It's a shame that Mark Zuckerberg's standoff didn't last longer, the negotiations "like playing chess with Kasparov" as one commentator put it; another remarking that like without the social giant's questionable contribution, journalists were allowed to focus less on their "virality".

I had earlier mentioned Stuff, the former Fairfax news platform in New Zealand's smaller (just turned five million population) market, led by new owner Sinead Boucher, and others are now doing so.

Thing is, Stuff has been living without Facebook for a while, an "experiment" - partly in protest at their streamed coverage of the Christchurch mosque shooting - driving minor ups-and-downs. Some stats are up four or five per cent, others possibly down five or ten per cent in real terms. "It hasn't been disastrous," says Boucher. "Audiences have found us in other ways, and direct and search traffic has gone up."

The well-serviced NZ market has Google and Facebook on top, of course, but Stuff ahead of Twitter and LinkedIn, and life goes on, as it did when Zuckerberg unsubtly used "the nuclear option" for a week in Australia.

While it's good that publishers should have the same options as other Facebook users, a longer Zuckerberg-induced experiment might be good for us. National broadcaster the ABC (that's Australian Broadcasting Commission, Alex Kantrowitz) saw its app uploads jump from about 1000 to more than 15,000 a day as a result.

Quoting Kantrowitz, "Instead of crushing the ABC, the ban set it free."

I hate the image of Facebook and Google as benevolent donors, generously donating to support public interest news gathering, as if they weren't doing it primarily to keep the governments of the world off their backs.

Former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who now takes Facebook's dollar, was on record last week that the Zuckerberg outfit was giving US$1 billion to newsmedia, matching a similar amount Google said last year that it was "giving". Yeah, right.

There's a lot that's wrong with Australia's mandatory code, and as Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young observed during the legislation's passage through the upper house last week, it'll need a lot of watching in the coming year. Too many political imperatives are at play, and still - as last week - the issue of satisfying the demands of the country's largest publishers.

Maybe the baton passes to other countries now, Australian communications minister Paul Fletcher attributing the legislation's success partly to the fact that it focussed on competition policy, rather than copyright, a "well-established policy tool" where bargaining power was out of balance.

And maybe more will have the guts to experiment with a life beyond Facebook, as Sinead Boucher's Stuff did. Bring it on!

Peter Coleman is managing editor of

Sections: Columns & opinion


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