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Howard Sherman: How changes to Facebook’s algorithm heaped injury on the arts and its coverage

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There are any number of reasons to read the new cover story from Wired magazine, 15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside of Facebook.

Given the ubiquity of Facebook in the global body politic, this account of how the company addresses its many opportunities and challenges makes for essential reading, especially in regards to our personal data and privacy as well as the social media site’s impact on elections.

But of particular interest to those in theatre, and the arts in general, is the article’s discussion of how Facebook, between 2017 and 2018, sought to suppress the frequency with which news articles were shared on the network. The all-powerful algorithm was apparently rejigged to favour so-called “personal content” over article sharing.

Wired recounts how radically this change altered the flow of traffic from Facebook to news sites, and in online response to the piece journalists confirmed the impact on their outlets.

Where the arts come into this, however, is just above the level of footnote, namely a mention on a chart of how Facebook news traffic was reduced by category.

While every subject group saw major reductions, on a percentage basis arts and entertainment referrals from Facebook to news pieces took the greatest hit. Legal issues may have been down 25%, politics down 34% and education down 35%, but arts and entertainment referrals were driven down by 71% overall.

Given the reductions in paid arts staffers internationally, this effectively adds injury to injury. Yet ‘insult’ is simply insufficient to convey the wounds being visited upon the arts and arts journalism by the current media environment.

Not only is there less coverage by fewer people being paid for their expertise, but one of the primary means of people finding the stories that get written is working to reduce awareness of that coverage.

Take note that the category is “arts and entertainment”, which suggests that the proportion of referrals to stories about the performing arts are even further reduced, since it’s the mass media that commands the greatest attention overall.

Arts and entertainment referrals from Facebook were driven down by 71% overall between 2017 and 2018

If you doubt that inference, here’s just a tiny sliver of data to put things in perspective. Between April 1 and April 20, the New York Times generated no fewer than a dozen stories about the new season of Game of Thrones (that’s without articles that recounted episodes from prior seasons). Among the pressing subjects to which the publication devoted its resources were Less Blabbing, More Stabbing: How Spectacle Won Game of Thrones, Why We Need Game of Thrones, and Game of Thrones Is Ending. But You Can Still Visit Westeros.

In contrast, to pick one Broadway show at random in a period when many are opening, the New York Times had just two stories on the musical Hadestown, which opened last week, in the first 20 days of April. One was a feature on director Rachel Chavkin, the other was Ben Brantley’s review of the show.

Hadestown review at National Theatre, London – ‘stunning new folk opera’

Perhaps a show opening in one theatre in New York as opposed to the final season of an international hit TV series is apples to oranges, but the point of the comparison is merely to show proportionality between the forms and the attention they get from the press itself, even before Facebook meddles in what gets further highlighted, or doesn’t.

On one level, it was ever thus. Compare the space afforded to sports in major media versus the arts. But with the intervening influence of Facebook – and remember that there’s now algorithmic influence at play on the much smaller universe of Twitter as well – the arts piece of the pie just seems to keep getting smaller.

There’s no easy solution here. Certainly paying for journalism with online subscriptions is one route, but how many outlets can the average person afford? And while that supports journalism generally, which is a worthy goal, it does not support arts journalism specifically.

For arts reporting that is accessible without subscription, it is incumbent on all of us to click, read and share vigorously, doing whatever we can to both feed and fight the algorithms by demonstrating our interest.

We can do this as individuals, but it may prove even more effective if arts organisations, which likely have more friends and followers than most individuals, make a point of sharing content about the field and the form, not merely those pieces that promote only their own work and their own agenda.

We have a shared agenda, which is for people to know and understand more about the arts and what’s on offer. We may be Davids against the Goliaths of social media, but the arts cannot afford to give up the fight.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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