How Facebook Is Killing Comedy

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks to reporters during a media event at Facebook’s Headquarters office in Menlo Park, California. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, in its second round of layoffs in as many years, comedy hub Funny or Die reportedly eliminated its entire editorial team following a trend of comedy websites scaling back, shutting down, or restructuring their business model away from original online content.

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.”

We’re not sure about you, but that certainly piqued our interest. We sat down with Klinman to fucking talk about it (and just a note–these opinions are his, and he’s speaking for himself and not on behalf of Funny or Die).

So: What happened at Funny or Die?

Funny or Die just went through a period of changing their business model. Now it’s going to focus on long-form content like television and branded content and less on original content made for the internet. They are being very supportive of the people who they had to lay off as far as continuing projects that they already had, but the way they ran things just no longer made any sense.

Let’s talk about the Twitter thread you wrote on the day of the layoffs.

How I felt on the day of was that a ton of my friends – people who I respect a lot and who are great comedy writers – were just laid off, and at this point it was increasingly clear to me that this is not a management problem or a problem with the content that they are making. The problem was that the whole business model made no sense, as far as us just putting the stuff up on the internet and us being able to make a living on it. I was just angry and frustrated and sad that you can’t make cool shit for the internet anymore and make a living.

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. People posted things on Facebook, then you would click those links and go to their websites. 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.

In these situations recently, like with Cracked, people get mad at the management and at the companies. I’m a labor dude, I’m a proud member of the WGAE, and I’m more than happy to get mad at management about something, but it’s increasingly clear that that’s not the problem. The problem is that Facebook is our editor and our boss. They decide what is successful and what isn’t successful via seemingly meaningless metrics. They hide behind algorithms that they change constantly. And it seems to me that they are not favoring things that are high-quality – they are favoring things that are clickbait, things that are optimized for Facebook, low-quality things that appeal to the lowest common denominator and, honestly, just things at random.

Facebook has created a centrally designed internet. It’s a lamer, shittier looking internet. It’s just not as cool as an internet that is a big, chaotic space filled with tons of independently operating websites who are able to make a living because they make something cool that people want to see.

How did this all happen?

Facebook is essentially running a payola scam where you have to pay them if you want your own fans to see your content. If you run a large publishing company and you make a big piece of content that you feel proud of, you put it up on Facebook. From there, their algorithm takes over, with no transparency. So, not only is the website not getting ad revenue they used to get, they have to pay Facebook to push it out to their own subscribers. So, Facebook gets the ad revenue from the eyeballs on the thing they are seeing, and they get revenue from the publisher. It’s like if The New York Times had their own subscriber base, but you had to pay the paperboy for every article you wanted to see.

The worst part is that as an artist, it feels like your own fault. We’re used to a world where if you put something out there that’s good, people see it and share it. But that’s just not true in this world. Someone can make something really good, and just because of some weird algorithmic reasons, or if it’s not designed specifically for Facebook, it doesn’t do well. And then it becomes impossible to know what a good thing to make is anymore.

Facebook is an absolutely fine repository for the names of people I’ve met in my life, and for photos I have of those people, and it would be a nice memorial to my life when I’m dead. But it has no business being a publisher, and they don’t even like to acknowledge that that’s what they are. Facebook hides behind all of this machinery, when what they’re doing is very human. Recommending things for people is a personal act, and there are people who are good at it. There are critics. There are blogs. It’s not beneficial to us to turn content recommendations over to an algorithm, especially one that’s been optimized for garbage.

Well, this is scary and depressing. What can we do to fix it?

First, linking out would be great. It would at least get people back to normal websites. Remember when your fingers just remembered different URLs, and you would go to The New York Times, and The Onion, and Funny or Die? Now it’s less so. You type in Facebook or Twitter or Reddit and then you just sit there and passively take in this feed of what’s selected for you.

The other alternative would be to just pay, like cable had to do. When someone does high-quality labor, you pay. The debate a few years ago was that the writers of digital publishers should unionize – that we should fight for our rights against management. That was a great idea, but what we didn’t know was that movement happened when these places started getting demolished by Facebook, but there’s no reason to unionize if management isn’t getting super rich off of your work. It’s Facebook getting rich off of your work.

The other solution, which seems crazy, is for there to be a meta organizing campaign, where media companies band together and refuse to post on Facebook, essentially going on strike and withholding their labor until they are compensated. These media companies need leverage against this massive entity that is eating their lunch. That’s the labor problem.

Zuckerberg is saying “I want to fix Facebook this year.” Well this, to me, is the biggest thing that needs fixing. They don’t pay, and that would be okay if it was possible to run a business using their platform, but you can’t. Media companies are full of smart people trying to make it work, but Facebook is this black box, and it’s impossible to run a digital media company if you can’t have consistent knowledge about what you’re publishing or why.

So of course places like Funny or Die, which has had success in more predictable systems, are going to shift their resources to television. They were founded because they want to employ writers and editors and directors to make cool shit, and currently they can employ more people making television than they can making stuff for the internet. It’s a shame, because the internet was a place where you could say and do anything, where you could make ambitious things or crazy things that wouldn’t work on traditional television. Take, for example, Homestar Runner, which was more than a website – it was a whole ecosystem. It was beautiful, created with love, a work of art. If you made that now, there would be no way to drive traffic to it, no way to know about it, because Facebook wouldn’t link out to a cool website. Even if you did get people to see it one time, it would be increasingly difficult to go a second or third time, because it’s not optimized for the feed.

This writer John Herrman writes about this a lot – he used to write for The Awl, rest in peace – he talks about how Facebook flattens everything out and makes it the same. That’s how we have a Russian propaganda problem. An article from something like, I don’t know, Rebel Patriot News written by a Macedonian teen or something looks exactly the same as a New York Times article. It’s the same for comedy websites. There’s a reason that Mad magazine looks different from Vanity Fair. They need to convey a different aesthetic and a different tone for their content to really pop. Facebook is the great de-contextualizer. There’s no more feeling of jumping into a whole new world on the internet anymore – everything looks exactly the same.

Herrman, who you can tell I like a lot, also talks about how Facebook is essentially AOL 2.0. They’ve made little websites for everyone, from companies and individuals, and it’s all on their centrally planned internet. They control our memories, and it traps us there and makes us feel like we can’t leave. My family and friends are there, posting life updates I want to see. Then you start scrolling, and hours pass by, and you’re dazed. You might not even remember if you saw a cool thing, because it kind of all blends together.

You’re really depressing me.

Well, there are all these studies that Facebook is literally depressing. There was a study recently that if you just give your cat a bowl of food every day, they get fat and depressed, because they don’t use their hunting instincts. So now some pet owners hide food around their house, and their pets are happier because they’re doing something. It’s the same thing with content. It’s better for us to try and find it, and get it from different sources and enter different worlds – to go on the tiniest journey to find something instead of having the trough open up and have the feed come pouring down into your face.

Let’s go back to Homestar Runner. That was super popular when I was in college, but it spread through word of mouth and was monetized through merchandise–there were no ads. Are we putting on rose-colored glasses when we look at how things used to be on the internet?

All that I can say is that it was possible to employ comedy writers online even two years ago, before this all happened. If someone’s starting out in comedy right now, I want to be able to tell them: Get work wherever you can. Submit jokes or freelance or whatever. Then you’ll get thrown bigger and bigger things, and then maybe you’ll be put on staff somewhere, and then maybe you’ll move on to television or a movie. But right now there’s no pipeline and no growth. There’s no incentive to make a collaborative project online.

Facebook says that they are building communities, but really they’re fracturing us. We are all on our own little news bubbles and on our own little islands. It’s also fracturing our own creative projects. The internet has turned into a place where you can’t have many different people speaking as one entity and expect those people to make a living. And to me, those are the most exciting, rewarding projects, and I can’t make those now. I am looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, but you can say categorically that the internet was a better place 3-4 years ago. It used to be fruitful, but it’s like a desert now.

Here’s another analogy, and I learned this in an ecology class: In the 1800s (or something), there were big lords, or kings or something, who had giant estates with these large forests. And there were these foresters who had this whole notion of how to make a perfectly designed forest, where the trees would be pristinely manicured and in these perfect rows, and they would get rid of all the gross stuff and dirt. It was just trees in a perfect, human-devised formation that you could walk through. Within a generation, these trees were emaciated and dying. Because that’s how a forest works – it needs to be chaotic. It needs bugs and leaves, it makes the whole thriving ecosystem possible. That’s what this new internet should be. It won’t survive as this human-designed, top-down thing that is optimized for programmatic ads. It feels like a desert. There’s no nutrition, there’s no opportunity to do anything cool.

Facebook put all this money into Live, and a bunch of cool things sprang up. And that’s because they put money into it. They gave water to the desert, and people flocked to it, because there are so many cool and creative people out there who want to make things with love. If you aren’t paying people, those things aren’t going to happen. But then Facebook stopped the live thing and then that was it.

What do you think the future of comedy on the internet looks like right now?

Right now it’s memes. I think memes are great, but it’s literally the smallest unit of an idea. And they are being made by individual people for free. I made a platform, Pitch, where the whole point of it is to pay people for jokes because I hated seeing people just giving work away for free. You may be getting traction as a young meme maker who is part of the new internet, but without this middle layer of digital comedy, there aren’t places to see you and hire you up for something bigger. There are just fewer and fewer opportunities that will be there for you if you do something cool.

I yearn for the days when my struggle was wanting to make something crazy, but wondering if advertisers of my website would be cool with it. I wish those were the arguments that I was having. I find myself talking to sales people from these companies, and we’re on the same page. They are the ones who see this more than anybody.

But I feel like one of the central problems is that people don’t expect to pay for content anymore.

It’s like eating locally or shopping locally. We need to think the same way about the internet. When you go to Facebook, you’re going to Walmart. And every time you go and scroll through content on Facebook, you’re depriving independent media of a way to exist. I’m still on Facebook, although almost exclusively to post anti-Facebook things. It’s a funny joke, but it’s also the only place to see it and engage with it. Facebook feels like this dingy, disgusting, rapacious place to me. And I want it to feel that way to other people so that when they go to a cool website, they are inspired: They see human beings putting love and care into something.  

But at this point, don’t we need some sort of platform that organizes and curates content?

It’s difficult to find things on the internet, being the cat searching around the house for its food. We’re too busy to do all of this shit. I understand that desire, but there needs to be a balance. If I could make a law, it would be that only real people can recommend things to other people. Zeynep Tufekci has this TED talk that is about how machine learning and algorithms turn us into crazy people. They drive us toward more and more extreme beliefs. If a certain number of people watch a Trump rally video, then YouTube recommends you a slightly more alt-right video, and suddenly you’re three steps away from watching a video about how Hitler was correct, if you let it autoplay. The EU has a bunch of laws kicking in to keep this in check – one is algorithmic transparency, where these places need to tell me why they are showing me something. Like, if Facebook is showing me an article, it needs to tell me why.

Facebook flattens out content, but it is also flattening out people. It’s turning us into robots. I’m going to sound like Alex Jones here, but this is how it works. Facebook needs humans to be as predictable as robots, because their business model is if you pay Facebook a certain amount of money for a certain amount of reach, they need to guarantee you get it. So in order for that to be dependable and sellable, people need to be essentially as reliable as bots. You just keep showing someone the same thing over and over until they engage with it. Or you get rid of everything else that’s interesting and make a world where all you get is your Facebook-optimized feed – that’s all the nourishment you will get, just your feed. A flattened internet is a predictable internet, and a flattened person is a predictable person.

What do you want to come from what happened at Funny or Die?

The next time some cool place cuts back or shuts down, I want people to not blame that place, I want them to blame what’s going on. I want people to think about what people are doing online in the same way that you think about what you buy at the grocery store or what shop you go to.

Is any comedy outlet doing well? For example, is The Onion in danger?

I would gladly give money to anyone who could tell me of any digital publisher that is doing well other than Facebook. And woe to those who want to start something new right now.

What advice would you give to a comedian who starting up right now?

I would say go to Palo Alto, go to One Hacker Way, walk into the front door of Facebook, and demand to know what the hell they’re doing. Someone told me that crazy people show up at Facebook every day because it ruined their lives, usually because of a personal reason, and I’m so close to being one of those crazy people. But instead of “Why did my wife leave me because of you?” it’s like, “Why did you destroy the internet comedy scene?”

Live comedy still rules. There’s cool stuff going on. Just make stuff. What you are seeing in comedy is that it’s swinging toward standup. It’s great and I have no problem with standup, but it’s not collaborative, it’s one person.

The whole other part of this is that we’re going back to a world in which, if you are a rich white man who is able to run an Instagram meme feed, you can still eke by right now. But imagine if you’re someone who doesn’t have that privilege – maybe you have student loan debt. Places like Funny or Die were finally equaling out our writing staff. It was something we really cared about. Can you imagine, if there’s no money, how can you get diverse voices into comedy if there’s no way for them to start out? It’s really bleak.

What would you say if you did go to One Hacker Way like a crazy person?

It’s the Jurassic Park lesson: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. You need to think through what you’re doing. If someone at Facebook sees this, I want them to know, if they care at all about the idea that was the internet, they need to start thinking through what they are doing. Otherwise, then you’re just like Lennie from Of Mice and Men – a big dumb oaf crushing the little mouse of the internet over and over and not realizing it. I’m sure that these are smart people who had a good mission at the start, and I’m sure they love the internet. But they need to start being thoughtful of what they’re doing.

Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer and standup who lives in Missoula, Montana. You can read her stuff at places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, and The Hairpin. She’s also a contributing writer at Reductress. If you want her in your daily life, you can follow her on Twitter. 

How Facebook Is Killing Comedy