(hey, type here for great stuff)

access to tools for the beginning of infinity

News discovery is broken: information access after social media

I’ve talked to friends over the months about a new type of internet mourning: the death of social discovery of news content for those relying on information to complete (or complement) their work.

The demise of Twitter/X as a source rememorates previous cultural shifts, from Google’s deprecation of its repository of RSS feeds, Google Reader, to Facebook’s pivot from news to avoid scrutiny and, ultimately, regulation as a media source. A friend of mine put it this way a few months ago when I asked him how he was adapting to X’s erratic behavior: “You know it’s bad when Apple News becomes the best way to access information.”

What’s going on with news discovery after Twitter/X coordinated enshitification of signals by “blue checks”?

Content discovery feels broken to some of us for a reason; it’s now harder to find a good signal amid the increased noise and the rise of algorithmic feeds that, like TikTok’s, elude meaningful relations and authoritative curation. As Matt Locke argues in Attention Matters, if digital platforms had the early advantage of bypassing traditional gatekeepers by connecting meaningful content to audiences, they’ve been undergoing what Cory Doctorow calls a process of “enshitification“:

“Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”

Tiktok’s enshittification, Cory Doctorow, Pluralistic.net (January 21, 2023)

The crisis of news discovery

Apple News offers media access to reliable print and online information sources as well as a recommendation tool based on the user’s interests but lacks any useful informal analysis and news commentary by reputed users that made social media information sharing useful in the first place. The service is only available in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia.

Google News, the news aggregator service launched by Google in 2002 on the web and in 2006 as an app, has morphed over the years to accommodate claims by news sources on how users access their content, especially when it sits behind a paywall. Unlike Google Reader, Google News prioritizes algorithmic personalization to the detriment of manual customization via RSS addition.

The collapse of news referrals in social media in one single graph (via Axios Visuals)

Back in June 2022, journalists and other professionals relying on information for their work used social media in different ways than the public; a survey by Pew Research stated that X (then Twitter) was the go-to social media site for US journalists, but not for the public. Nine in ten journalists used social media for their jobs, with Twitter (69% of journalists) clearly ranking as “the top of the list for work-related tasks,” and the general public opting mainly for Facebook (31% of total users):

“Around seven-in-ten US journalists (69%) say it is the social media site they use most or second most for their job. Twitter is followed by Facebook at 52% and, far lower on the list, by Instagram (19%), LinkedIn (17%) and YouTube (14%). None of the other sites asked about in the survey – Reddit, WhatsApp, TikTok, Discord, Twitch and Snapchat – were named by more than 4% of the journalists surveyed.”

“A different lineup emerges for the public. Among Americans overall, Facebook is the most widely used social media site for news, with 31% of US adults saying they go there regularly for news. YouTube is the second-most frequently used site, with 22% of the public regularly getting news there. Fewer adults (13%) say they regularly get news on Twitter, despite the platform’s widespread use among journalists. Overall, a little under half of US adults (48%) say they often or sometimes get news from social media sites.”

Twitter is the go-to social media site for US journalists, but not for the public, Pew Research Center (June 27, 2022)

Social media’s news referrals collapse

Elon Musk’s takeover has transformed this picture, and future surveys will show the obliteration of X as a tool for information professionals while it pivots toward a model that relies on erratic recommendation, a meme-powered alternative to TikTok that prioritizes paid users’ posts and images/video over news commentary.

The Twitter-X implosion as a credibility source to gather and share information by journalists and other information pundits is not a bug but a feature. After Elon Musk’s takeover, the platform switched from notoriety-based user verification to a paid subscription, showing the owner’s contempt for institutionalized prestige badges. Most importantly, the change transformed replies and made them virtually useless as top responses became a vociferous cacophony of sycophants.

Back in June 2022, Twitter (now X) was the go-to place for journalists to find out about what’s going on; this has changed quickly (Pew Research Center, “Twitter is the go-to social media site for U.S. journalists, but not for the public,” June 27, 2022)

Social discovery of news content cratered over two years ago when Facebook decided to prioritize less polarizing content as regulatory scrutiny grew in the US and the EU. As Twitter/X and Meta pivoted away from news, news referrals on social media collapsed from August 2020 to August 2023, according to Axios.

Facebook went from driving nearly 120 million referrals in August 2020 to only 21.4 million in August 2023, an 82% drop. X dropped from under 60 million to 22.6 million.

Companies that relied on business models that depended on clicks from social media, like Buzzfeed and Vice, suffered the consequences of this traffic shift, whereas traditional media that reinforced their analysis and investigative journalism teams and offered subscription models have resisted the crisis of the social media engagement drought, from the Financial Times to the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

The trouble with content moderation and free speech

It wasn’t only digital news startups like Buzzfeed, Vice or Vox who based their strategy on referrals from user sharing on social media: a growing amount of donation- and subscription-based indie projects creating investigative and analysis journalism on platforms such as Substack attract readers via social media too, and their reach is now compromised as engagement rate benchmarks fall across social media.

When, in late 2022, Elon Musk hired Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and others to report how the previous Twitter ownership had used filtering tools to arguably lessen conservative views, he didn’t know that the so-called Twitter Files would demonstrate, if anything, that it’s hard to use content moderation fairly and consistently in social media, as users and bots test the limits of any possible moderation policy.

Social discovery fatigue: engagement has decreased over time

Soon, the new ownership’s maximalist view on free speech would prove tricky, as Musk used the very tools he decried to ban uses or diminish their visibility in search and feeds. And, contrary to the company’s claims, the new push for transparency and free speech did nothing but render the site useless to a sizeable part of its former audience.

Other changes made it more difficult for people using the platform as their news discovery tool to stick around. Instead of facilitating the platform’s ability to break the news, X pushed the algorithmically curated “For You” tab that blends TikTok-style engagement content with tendentious information. But the decline of X as a useful tool for a sizeable part of its former heavy users isn’t an isolated phenomenon, as social media loses relevance in showing people what’s worth paying attention to.

The myth of social media and populism

Social media is losing its shine as an information catalyzer as news and content discovery see a drop in engagement. Two entire electoral cycles after the convoluted 2016, when social media was credited for the rise of illiberal democracies, the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as US president, analysts and social scientists now decry that social media’s mighty reach has been overly exaggerated.

With pervasive smartphones and fast, pervasive internet, the rapid rise of social media allowed unfiltered views to bypass agenda-setting restraints in traditional media, and unorthodox views to enter the public’s personalized feeds. The new habits created eco chambers, information silos, and, arguably, an increase in political polarization. But the link between social media and populism, argues Jan-Werner Müller in a Foreign Policy article, is a myth:

“Every media revolution in history has caused a moral panic: The printing press was said to have prompted wars of religion; radio gave the world Adolf Hitler; TV enabled McCarthyism. None of these points, still repeated by sophisticated observers today, is completely wrong. But in every case, the technological determinism proved mistaken, as did the assumption that new media would empower irrational masses, always ready to be seduced by demagogues.”

The Myth of Social Media and Populism, Jan-Werner Müller, Foreign Policy (January 3, 2024)

Social media exhaustion

A little over a decade ago, social media was welcomed by people around the world with optimism and naïveté; Twitter and Facebook were perceived as positive platforms where information was shared, citizen journalism thrived, and messages among participants helped organize uprisings against autocrats. Back then, the so-called legacy media cheered the role of social media in the Arab uprisings:

“But just as the Arab Spring turned to Arab Winter, enthusiasm morphed into pessimism. Panic ensued in 2016, after the double shock of Brexit and Trump’s election. Liberal commentators were quick to identify what they saw as a major culprit of the world’s twin populist disasters: social media and, in particular, echo chambers. Not only did liberals veer from cheering to jeering. They also indulged in nostalgia for a supposedly golden age of responsible gatekeeping by journalists.”

The Myth of Social Media and Populism, Jan-Werner Müller, Foreign Policy (January 3, 2024)

Social media news consumption has slowed down globally from its peak in 2020, according to the annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report and a Pew Research Center survey.

Use of social media platforms by journalists depending on media organization (Pew Research Center, “Twitter is the go-to social media site for U.S. journalists, but not for the public,” June 27, 2022)

Damon Kiesow of Missouri School of Journalism thinks that the problem isn’t that Facebook and other platforms are pivoting away from news:

“The problem is that too many news organizations have assumed that that free source of referrals was somehow earned or somehow guaranteed.”

As Jacob Donnely, publisher of Morning Brew, argued in his newsletter A Media Operator, the era of traffic may be officially over:

“The models that have worked in the past are not the ones that will work going forward. The ease of distribution that publishers had at the time is going to get significantly harder now that the biggest platforms are resistant to sending their traffic off platform.”

The “enshitification” of news discovery

Is there a way out of the process of social media “enshitification“? One thing is clear: there’s a huge opportunity for startups in trying to solve news discovery and curation. As Goodreads.com’s co-founder Otis Chandler shared in a late 2021 Medium post announcing that he was working on a news discovery site, it’s become too hard to find good stuff to read in the limited time we have.

Perhaps the current social media news discovery implosion is a good thing in the long term, prompting us to realize it was too risky to rely on feeds optimized for engagement and not quality or information signal.

Apple News or Google News can’t be the best way to discover and share news, especially those crucially fresh and independent analyses and investigative pieces coming from indie media or solo shops.

Apple News is becoming a last-resort service for those who think that news discovery in social media isn’t viable

Communities building around human curation and commentary could experiment with AI tools that could help discover, summarize, and perform other tasks that gave services like Axios their competitive advantage.

Once a good signal is secured, the rest is up to the reader, who, at times, would become a commentator. Such insights were the real force of the now-defunct Twitter for information experts.