Don't laugh at Zuckerberg's newspaper metaphor, it's more accurate than you think

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 7, 2013

From The News Desk

Facebook founder and hoodie-wearing CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims that local newspapers influenced the newly redesigned News Feed. He even compared today's update to a local newspaper, the nonexistent Monterey Daily, much to the bewilderment of the tech press.

Doesn't Zuck know that print is dead? That's been the refrain from the tech press, from Slate's Farhad Manjoo to our own Richard Nieva and Reuters' John C. Abell, who all questioned Facebook's choice of metaphor after today's announcement.

But you know what? In many ways, Facebook already is a local newspaper. And that's only going to become more pronounced as the service develops.

Facebook is the place where people share their photos, wish each other a happy birthday, and find out about significant developments in their friends and family's lives. It's where people share music, the articles they're reading, and, in the future, what they're watching. Because it's those things, it will continue to resemble a hyper-local newspaper.

The local newspaper in my scrawny hometown in Upstate New York served three important functions: Telling the public someone died, letting everyone know that a town or county function was being held, and announcing who had gotten arrested or engaged. (I conflate those two for the sake of the old "ball and chain" metaphor, if only to bother my fiancée.) There were news articles too, but those categories alone justified plunking down 75 cents.

It's easy to see how Facebook might consider itself the new "Entertainment" section of the newspaper, allowing users to rely on their friends and Pages to discover the next best thing on TV, in film or music, get a backstage pass, see what's popular among the people they care about. Add the usual gossip, funny images stolen from Reddit, and photos of babies and sunsets, and Facebook becomes a must-read for many of its users. Facebook is where people go to learn about what's happening in their network's lives. If that isn't newspaper-like, what is?

Facebook has struggled to support all of the content its users and advertisers publish on its platform. People aren't simply sharing images or tiny status updates, they're sharing entire albums, memes, videos, news articles; everything except Nick Bilton's column, apparently, which Bilton says is being shared less and less as he gains Facebook's version of Twitter followers, Subscribers. The updated News Feed is about categorizing and displaying that information -- column or no column -- in a cleaner, smarter, and more mobile-like interface.

Consider it editing by algorithm. Newspapers rely on an editorial staff to produce, categorize, and publish content in a way that appeals to the broadest audience. Facebook's users are already producing the content. They simply need a better way to view and share everything they and their friends are creating.

The updated News Feed promises to help with that. Allowing users to view photos or music their friends have shared, or view content by group or who they're following may as well be the new sections of the newspaper. Once users are done with the front page they can poke their way around Facebook, find what they want, and better curate their experience on the service.

Zuckerberg's newspaper metaphor doesn't work if you consider a newspaper to be nothing more than paper and ink. But if you think of the newspaper as the medium that allows people to build a sense of community, find out what is happening in the immediate world around them, and learn about the people they care about, it's hard to think of Facebook as anything but a local paper.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]