There's been a debate raging throughout 2016 about Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) role in the world. On one hand, the social network has become one of the largest content distribution platforms ever created. On the other hand, Facebook doesn't really create much of the content that gets shared on its platform. The curve ball is that Facebook's News Feed algorithms and content curation play a huge part in what people actually see. This raises an inevitable question: Is Facebook a tech platform company or a media company?
Mark Zuckerberg has historically fought back against the perception that Facebook is a media company. In August, Zuckerberg explicitly said, "No, we are a tech company, not a media company." This assertion was directly predicated on the fact that Facebook does not produce content, instead focusing on building and operating the platform itself while providing tools for publishers and content creators.
A couple months later, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Chief Product Officer Chris Cox added:
If you look at how we've defined ourselves internally for 12 years now, it has been a technology company. A media company is about the stories that it tells. A technology company is about the tools that it builds. We also realize that we've become a significant part of the way a lot of people get information about what's going on in the world. That comes with a huge responsibility. And it's one that we take very seriously.
Well, it seems that the young billionaire CEO is ready to accept that Facebook is a form of media company, even if it doesn't create content.
A sudden change of heart
Zuckerberg starts and ends every week with a 1-on-1 meeting with COO Sheryl Sandberg to discuss that week's happenings. The pair decided to livestream their last 1-on-1 of 2016, and during the conversation Zuckerberg made an implicit admission (emphasis added):
Facebook is a new kind of platform. It's not a traditional technology company. It's not a traditional media company. You know, we build technology and we feel responsible for how it's used. We don't write the news that people read on the platform, but at the same time we also know that we do a lot more than just distribute the news, and we're an important part of the public discourse.
The executive's comments suggest that he is slowly coming around to the fact that Facebook is a sort of hybrid company that sits at the intersection between technology and media. Given the sudden change of heart, you can't help but wonder if the fake news controversy has shifted Zuckerberg's perception of his own company, given the possibility that Facebook influenced last month's election in some form or fashion.
Putting the "media" in "social media"
Interestingly, this is also a topic that Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) has grappled with. Likewise, ex-CEO Dick Costolo proclaimed in 2012 that "Twitter is not a media company." The rationale was the same: "We don't create our own content. We're a distributor of content and traffic."
Whether these companies acknowledge it openly, Facebook and Twitter have become powerful entities that directly affect what information people see. Facebook's active curation in particular gives it incredible power -- and responsibility -- while Twitter continues to experiment with limited curation.
The whole semantic debate is kind of silly when you remember that this entire sector is referred to as the social media sector.