Pop quiz: What do Kim Kardashian and Bob Woodward have in common?
If that question were posed Wednesday, the answer might be that both had written books — one about selfies, the other about presidential self-destruction. But as of today, Kardashian and Woodward have something else in common: both have access to the same suite of exclusive social media tools, privileges that have also been extended to thousands of other journalists.
Earlier today, Facebook announced it was allowing journalists and others with verified profiles to use Mentions, an app originally intended to empower celebrities to manage their social personas. After Mentions launched in 2014, news outlets dutifully chronicled the list of actors, musicians and professional athletes that flocked to the app, then dubbed a “VIP only” service.
Now, journalists and public figure whose profiles have been verified by Facebook — as indicated by a little blue check mark — will have access to Mentions. Using the app, they can monitor Facebook chatter about various topics and hold question-and-answer sessions from their phones. They also have access to an expanded list of trending topics, headlines and summaries that describe the most popular stories of the day.
Vadim Lavrusik, product manager of Facebook Mentions and Live, said Facebook decided to open Mentions to journalists in order to better facilitate interactions between newsrooms and the communities they cover.
“Journalists are, often times, the experts behind the content that’s being discovered and talked about by everyday people who are seeing it on Facebook,” Lavrusik said. “So we want to make those conversations available to journalists to be able to tap into. Their readers and their audiences are on Facebook, and we want to make it easier for them to connect with those people.”
Today’s rollout also means verified journalists (you can apply for verification here) can use Facebook Live, a video streaming function within Mentions that was previously restricted to VIPs with access to the app. With it, journalists can post a real-time broadcast to their News Feed and interact with viewers as comments roll in.
It’s hard to imagine that today’s news, which has been anticipated for weeks, won’t be viewed as an encroachment on Twitter. For years, Twitter has been the dominant public square for journalists, a place where they break news, monitor stories, banter with their colleagues and field questions from readers. Mentions, with its catalog of trending stories, topic monitoring features and reader interactivity, could theoretically supplant some of the functions currently provided by Twitter. And Facebook Live could muscle in on Periscope, the Twitter-owned livestreaming app that relies on its parent company for viewers.
But Lavrusik says Facebook was driven by a desire to improve user experiences rather than pressure from competitors. When Mentions was being developed, Meerkat and Periscope hadn’t yet burst on the scene.
“We’re really focused on making the experience good for the folks that we’ve been building for,” Lavrusik said. “I think we felt like we had a lot of demand from these folks to build this feature, and so we really wanted to build this to make Facebook a better experience for public figures.”
Opening Mentions to journalists is the latest overture from Facebook to the world of media, and it signals that the social media giant is looking to strengthen its position as a destination for news. Earlier this year, Facebook debuted Instant Articles, a long-awaited feature that saw many of the world’s major news organizations publishing stories within the social network to enhance loading speed. That development was greeted by various members of the journalism community as either an opportunity to join forces with a tech juggernaut or as an omen that the Facebook was chipping away at their independence, depending on who was writing.
Lavrusik views Mentions and Instant Articles as two products that work in tandem to surface content that Facebook users want to see.
“Facebook is a sort of bridge to discovering this type of content,” Lavrusik said. “People spend a lot of time on Facebook, so anything we can do to make it easier to discover what’s happening in the world around you — whether it’s seeing an article from one of your favorite publishers, or being able to consume that article within the rich experience of Instant Articles, or being able to connect with a journalist you really respect for their expertise — adds value for the people on Facebook.”
The bottom line: Today’s update to Mentions means that more journalists may decide to use Facebook as another avenue for reporting and engagement, thereby solidifying the social network’s place as an arbiter of news.