Over the last year, we’ve seen a disturbing trend. Comedy websites are dying. The once lauded Funny or Die—created by SNL great Will Ferrell—has been going through a series of layoffs. The company, which was considered a go-to for top comedy online, is now being forced to scale back in a big way.
This happens all the time. Media companies are forced to restructure and make changes. In the ever-shifting landscape of online media, that’s even more prevalent. But as newspapers and magazines struggle to adapt, long-standing online institutions seemed unshakeable. How could the website that helped launch the career of Zach Galifianakis and others be in trouble?
Was there a drop in quality? Did they stop caring about their audience? Were they bought out by a big studio and faced the corporate hatchet man? According to a former staffer, who just got laid off, it has everything to do with Facebook.
After being fired from the company, Matt Klinman expressed his thoughts.
Hours after CEO Mike Farah delivered the news via an internal memo, Matt Klinman took to Twitter, writing, “Mark Zuckerberg just walked into Funny or Die and laid off all my friends.” It was a strong sentiment for the longtime comedy creator, who started out at UCB and The Onion before launching Pitch, the Funny or Die-incubated joke-writing app, in 2017.
But Klinman explained in a thread: “There is simply no money in making comedy online anymore. Facebook has completely destroyed independent digital comedy and we need to fucking talk about it.” (Splitsider)
In venting his frustrations, Klinman is exposing a long-growing trend. The Internet was once a much more open landscape than it is today. But as social media began digging in its claws, a new form of gatekeeper has reared its ugly head.
Once upon a time, it was very hard for a sole individual to get his/her ideas out to the world. You had to submit your work to established outlets: publishers, newspapers, TV shows, etc. If you were lucky, you could eventually “break into” the career you were pursuing. But it was hard. And many people just didn’t make it.
The limits on opportunities gave a small group of people incredible power over what we saw, read, or heard. In a society that prizes free speech and free press, few people were actually exercising those freedoms in a tangible way.
Then came the Internet. In just a few short years, everything changed. Anyone, and I mean anyone, could create a webpage and publish their thoughts. There was a very real possibility that the entire world would read or watch what they produced. You didn’t have to spend millions of dollars to get attention. A few people might like what you did and share it with their friends (via email or other means). Then they’d share it, then more would share it. Soon you could have a significant audience -completely independent of the old gatekeepers.
But now the landscape is crowded. It’s becoming increasingly hard for an entertainer, like a comedian, to get traction. Once you could start a website, produce quality content, and get a following. From there you could monetize, via ads or merch. Now everybody has a website, blog, or YouTube channel. Users are inundated with options. Even established sites like Funny or Die are having trouble drawing people in.
Social media sounded like a solution. Once again, people could share content with their friends and it could go viral. Content creators, like Funny or Die, just had to create a Facebook page and post links to their site. It made sharing content incredibly easy (and cheap). But now Facebook is a monster. It monopolizes the time and attention of many Internet users. And it wants its pound of flesh.
As Klinman explains:
The whole story is basically that Facebook gets so much traffic that they started convincing publishers to post things on Facebook. For a long time, that was fine… But then, gradually, Facebook started exerting more and more control of what was being seen, to the point that they, not our website, essentially became the main publishers of everyone’s content. Today, there’s no reason to go to a comedy website that has a video if that video is just right on Facebook. And that would be fine if Facebook compensated those companies for the ad revenue that was generated from those videos, but because Facebook does not pay publishers, there quickly became no money in making high-quality content for the internet. (Splitsider)
Unlike YouTube, Facebook doesn’t share ad revenue with its content creators. Yet Facebook is trying to become your one-stop-shop for all things online. They don’t want you going to YouTube, Gmail, or search engines. They don’t even want you to visit other sites for the news. Facebook wants all of the content you see cradled in its crappy blue interface. The people who create that content? They can fuck off.
But it gets worse than that. Klinman describes Facebook’s payola scam. Not only does Facebook refuse to compensate creators for ad views, but they want to charge them in order for fans to see their content. Now creators have to pay Facebook for fans to see their work, knowing they won’t get any compensation. How messed up is that?
Facebook wants to become a modern-day AOL, where everything you see is filtered through their platform. They want to exploit users for free content, then extort those same users for anyone to see that content. It’s nonsense. Facebook is creating a situation that will not only drive users away but destroy the chances for artists to produce anything of value.
Klinman and others have floated alternatives and solutions to the problem. They recommend changes to Facebook’s approach. Fat chance. Some have recommended more paid-for content models. That has worked on some levels. Others have called for a boycott of Facebook altogether. For media companies to refuse to use the site until changes are made.
That could force Facebook to wake up and cooperate with creators. But when you’re the biggest dog in the park, do you really fear the yaps of the small dogs around you?
I’m thinking Facebook doesn’t have to do a damn thing. And it probably won’t.