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In hindsight, Zynga’s business never really made sense. When the gaming empire went public in 2011, the company hinged on fads (online farming?) and owed its existence to Facebook.

Like that relationship was ever going to work.

Zynga rode Facebook to the top and the two grew dependent on one another. Then when the timing was right — when Facebook didn’t need Zynga or any other gaming company to prove it could make money — Facebook cut the cord.

The gaming publisher’s market cap peaked above $10 billion in March 2011. Today it’s worth a fraction of that.


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Now let’s talk about another kind of publisher. This kind. Or even this kind.

Just like the cracks in Zynga’s business model began to show in 2011, the media industry’s Facebook addiction, and the mirage of endless scale, is now becoming painfully clear in the year 2016. Although this increasingly tumultuous relationship has been covered ad nauseam, the comparison feels more apt today than ever.

In the years since Mark Pincus’ heyday, history has repeated itself to some degree. Publishers, from century-old newspapers struggling with print’s decline to trendy new media startups running out of VC money, have turned to Facebook for help. And Mark Zuckerberg, with his pet project to become the world’s newspaper, watched as publishers and aggregators grew dangerously dependent on the social network and just about enveloped it.

Making sense of this overwhelming flood of content is the job of the brains fine-tuning Facebook’s News Feed. The company has labored over this a lot lately, and every time it’s nudged, pushed, and knocked back publishers’ advances, some publishers, often the biggest ones, have taken a hit.

And now, another nudge: Facebook has again rattled publishers, announcing yesterday that it will begin showing users more posts from their friends and families. With this change, Facebook says, “we anticipate that this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages.”

That’s not to say Facebook doesn’t need publishers anymore; it just needs them a little less. The trouble is, every time Facebook needs the media a little less, they need Facebook that much more.

The moment the social network throws publishers a bone, they leap towards it. Instant Articles lured media companies in with the promise of eyeballs: Don’t worry about your website, your engineers, or your sales team — Facebook can provide all of that, as long as it sees fit. Until the algorithm changes again. Deeper we dig in.

Facebook now wields more influence over the news than the news industry itself. Publishers, by playing ball, helped make this happen, and looked away (or didn’t notice) as Facebook swallowed up a lot of the print ad revenue that once belonged to them.

Media giants could cut ties now, but they won’t. Like the Zyngas before us, most publishers are far too dependent to quit cold turkey. There are plenty of interesting ways to run a media company, and there are other platforms to turn to. Journalism and writers aren’t flat-out doomed, but some publishers are.

Facebook saw that its social network was becoming less social, and now it’s taking action. This is a good thing (if you’re Facebook). Facebook has a track record of good decisions. And this decision reinforces just how screwed publishers are as long as their business models hinge on Facebook.

As the social network increasingly distances itself from the media business, expect another messy divorce in which Facebook again comes out on top. The fling was never meant to last. For Facebook, keeping publishers afloat doesn’t really make sense.

Like that relationship was ever going to work.

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