On Friday, The Business Insider‘s latest Chart of the Day portrayed Facebook’s unbelievable effect on the rest of the web. Unfortunately, the key word here is “unbelievable,” but not in the way The Business Insider intended.
But why is this report so unbelievable, and why do we keep falling for all these not-so-thinly-veiled advertisements that masquerade as news?
Let’s take a closer look.
Business Insider‘s main takeaway from the original AllThingsD article by the chart’s primary author, Ben Elowitz of Wetpaint, was this:
He says the rest of the web is quickly becoming “irrelevant,” and argues that in the future companies will need to spend less time on SEO, and more time on optimizing for Facebook.
So now the web is “irrelevant”? There goes your entire business model, right? “Screw our website! We need to invest all our money on Facebook! Business Insider said so!!!”
Well… not really. For a number of reasons.
First, if you read Elowitz’s original article, he repeatedly cites mobile usage (which is primarily app-driven, as opposed to web-driven) as another big reason why web usage is down. WIRED made this same argument last year. This isn’t new.
But crediting the web’s shrinkage entirely to Facebook is.
And while that’s not what Elowitz did, per se, it is what’s implied in his graphic. And when Business Insider highlighted his graphic, their mini-summary of his article shrunk the focus to the implication made by his graphic.
Maybe they did this while hoping that people would glance at their infographic, form an opinion and retweet it frequently without bothering to examine the bigger picture. And, apparently, that’s exactly what happened.
And that’s the real problem.
Because this isn’t really a news story at all. This is just data and opinion from a biased source.
Because Ben Elowitz the is CEO of Wetpaint, a self-declared “next-generation media company that uses its proprietary state-of-the-art technologies and expertise in social media to drive and monetize audiences.”
And, interestingly (unless you’re The Business Insider), “Wetpaint is backed by Accel Partners, the investors behind Facebook and Groupon.”
So, to recap, The Business Insider chose to present a pro-Facebook infographic made by the CEO of a company which specializes in monetizing social media audiences — and which is backed by the same investors as Facebook itself — as news.
This really shouldn’t be surprising, since the Twitter bio of Chart of the Day producer Jay Yarow proclaims, “I write the words that make the Internet go blog.” In that context, should Yarow’s charts be seen less as information and more as provocative conversation-starters?
Unfortunately, this kind of faux-journalism, in which clearly biased “research” is passed off as news, is something we can’t avoid. From drug research funded by the drug companies to Facebook research funded by companies that profit from Facebook, news outlets have always been desperate to publish content that gets people talking (and reading, watching, subscribing, and generating ad revenue).
So, let’s step back and remind ourselves of two basic truths:
Correlation is not causation. Just because people are using Facebook more and the rest of the web less, that doesn’t mean people are choosing Facebook instead of the web in an either-or comparison. It just means one site is growing while the majority of sites are diminishing. Why? That requires actual research, not biased presumptions.
Just because I stayed at a hotel, that doesn’t mean I slept there. Sure, Facebook usage may be up 69% over a single year-to-year window. But what were those users spending all their time doing on Facebook? Maybe they were playing Farmville, or commenting on photos, or changing their privacy settings (again). But a usage increase in no way indicates that any of that usage involves brands or ecommerce.
The chart above fails to empirically support the presumption that brands should spend more time and money on Facebook, except to imply that because your potential customers are spending more time on Facebook, you should too. (And if your potential customers all jumped off a bridge, what would a chart for that look like?)
And, of course, here’s the rub:
Elowitz might be right. I’m not even saying he isn’t. I’m just saying we can’t know whether or not he’s right based on one chart, and we shouldn’t be creating headlines and infographics that oversell one part of the story without reporting on the story in full.
Or, to put it another way: if the people who live in one city were outliving the people who live in every other city, would you really drop everything and move to that city tomorrow without stopping to ask… why?