Remember MySpace? Or Friendster? No one talks much about Friendster anymore, because it was basically exactly Facebook. I remember the first time someone told me about Facebook, which I had just missed by graduating a little too early and not going to Harvard, my quizzical reaction was “Oh, you mean, like Friendster?” Everyone was on MySpace and Friendster. They were going to take over the world. And then they didn’t.
Look, Facebook has gotten way further along than those sites did. It’s more in the same company as Google these days. And even though people look at me kind of strangely when I say Google “no longer works”, I do think the main searching function of that site is on its way out the door, the algorithm hopelessly cluttered by paid rank improvements of all kind, both with the money going to Google and the cash going to rank-beating services. But regardless. Google has infiltrated our lives sufficiently with its GMail product (though rumor has it they’re trying to ruin that somehow, too) that they will be around for a while.
But Facebook has apparently recently announced that they’re done. Not interested in being the top web company, or co-top, any longer. According to this Wall Street Journal article, they’re going to require people with Facebook pages about something other than themselves (i.e. businesses, artists, teams, websites, etc.) to more or less pay to play.
Here’s how they put it:
“Businesses that post free marketing pitches or reuse content from existing ads will suffer ‘a significant decrease in distribution,’ Facebook warned in a post earlier this month announcing the coming change.
The upshot for Ms. Bossie is that ‘if I do not pay to promote the post or boost it, it’s hardly reaching anyone,’ she says. Now, more than half her sales come via her Facebook posts, she estimates.”
-WSJ article, 27 November 2014
Now I don’t know how far this reaches or how deep the rabbit hole goes. My dramatic post title and condemnation of the move is based on the assumption that Facebook is basically doing this to all pages of all sorts, be they for individual budding artists or writers, companies large and small, candidates for office, activism groups, sports teams, debate teams, you name it. It could be that they’re only overtly targeting for-profit businesses of some establishment with this change, in which case, I’m not so worried about it. But in any case, I see doom on the horizon.
I think the best analogy is not MySpace or Friendster, but Netflix. Remember when everyone in America had a Netflix subscription? It wasn’t that long ago. Yes, I know Netflix has bounced back a little and a lot of people share the password to someone’s account who actually pays for Netflix now, so it kind of feels like most people have Netflix. But remember when they had just one Netflix service and everyone got discs in the mail? Yeah, you recall now. Cool.
And then they made this dramatic announcement, in September 2011, that they would be splitting their DVD-by-mail service from their streaming service. And, more insultingly, that the service everyone liked less (streaming, which had far fewer movies and vastly fewer good movies) would be considered the “default” Netflix, while they were calling the by-mail model that had built the Netflix empire “Qwikster”. They cancelled the official split in businesses a month later after they lost millions of subscriptions and there was huge public outcry, but this was just window-dressing as they basically persisted with the split of services, separate charges for each, and pretending that streaming was the default and mainline service. By the end of that year, their stock value had lost over 75% of its value and Netflix went from being a household necessity to something that was desperately pestering people to come back and try it again free for a month. Admittedly, Netflix has rebounded a little by reinventing itself as a TV station, adding tons of popular shows (Gilmore Girls, anyone?) to its streaming lineup and even creating new shows. But their popularity and reach is nothing compared to where they’d be if they’d just kept mailing DVDs to people in perpetuity while doing the same build of their streaming library.
This is the precipice that I feel Facebook is on with this new change at the top of 2015, assuming it applies to everyone with followed pages. Because here’s the problem: people don’t like paid-advertising content. They don’t like sponsored links. People like what they like. For goodness sakes, Facebook reinvented what it means to like something; they should know this better than anyone! What makes Facebook so palatable for people is that you can like exactly what you like, friend exactly who you like, and basically make Facebook a little portal into only and exactly the things that you feel good about.
Facebook has always had ads, of course. Everyone has ads, except PostSecret, who commendably has built an empire out of books and having one of the simplest and most brilliant ideas ever to grace the web. Good on PostSecret. But everyone else is trying to subsist on ads. And part of the deal with ads is that basically no one younger than 35 can even really see them unless they voluntarily choose to. People raised with the Internet at some point in their high school or college days or younger have trained their eyes where to look for content and where to look for advertising and to mentally block out the imagery and text of advertising. Maybe I’m somewhat unique in this, but I really don’t think so, because in the last year or so, everyone started putting ads in new places, right in the middle of the content. Self-declared authorities of the web like Salon and Huffington Post have started having ads either disrupt your viewing experience entirely by plastering across the screen like a cumbersome pop-up or putting them in the text box every third paragraph so you seemingly have to see it. And Facebook has put sponsored content right there in the news feed like it’s something you want to see.
Here’s the problem: no one wants to see this stuff. When I started getting sponsored ads in my Facebook feed, my reaction was resentful. “I didn’t like ViralNova,” I would grumble to myself. “Why is ViralNova stuff in my feed?” Facebook conveniently does offer the option of blocking future content from any given perpetrator of this advertising, I guess to prevent a riot or maintain the illusion of controlling one’s own content, but it’s still kind of an embittering process when you’re expecting Facebook to give you only stuff that you have voluntarily chosen (or begrudgingly accepted, I guess, from that borderline friend). But at least Facebook still gives me updates from the Blazers and the Mariners, goofy stuff from Chipotle, sales from Southwest Airlines. Because I actually want to see that stuff in my feed.
Now it looks like unless those companies pony up some money, I won’t see their content at all! Which is the most distressing and I think self-destructing part of this for Facebook. I want to know about those big companies, yes, but also to get updates about the budding craft and pottery businesses from old friends in California, my ex-colleague in the Bay Area who is an aspiring artist, my friend in North Carolina’s photography business, and my rising star artist friend in New York City. These all have Facebook pages I have liked and I love being able to use Facebook to follow their progress and cheer them on. Seeing updates from Glide always brightens my day. I suspect I have a few friends who even follow this very website this way, which I diligently update every time there’s a new post and someday will again whenever I finally finish the Song Quiz and get going on other quizzes.
The point is that these fledgling little pages are a huge part of what works about Facebook, its magic, if you will. Like getting little DVDs in the mail and reigniting the joy of mail for people was about Netflix, the little feeling of receiving a present a couple times a week, plus the thrill of anticipation of knowing it’s coming. Netflix totally failed to understand how much of its brand and magic and hold on people was about that simple little process and felt it could kill it in the name of revenue. But that was the revenue! And some group in a boardroom decided that Netflix didn’t need the magic anymore, a whole country felt betrayed, and people dropped it like it was hot.
The people with these pages want to get their news, content, and updates to those people who like them. And the people who have liked them want that content. They voluntarily signed up for it. It is crazy to try to extort a few extra bucks from these people trying to disseminate content to people who want it. And it is even crazier, because most of what is being paid for is getting that content to other people who don’t want it! When you “boost” a post as a page, you can target the audience somewhat, but the point is that most of the people it’s delivered to are not people who’ve ever expressed interest in your company/art/content. Now yes, the empire-building capitalist theory of everyone is that you’re supposed to believe that everyone will someday like me, but they just haven’t heard of me yet. Just like we will all someday be billionaires in this country, we’re just going through our poor-but-humble phase now. But the reality is that this is not how liking things works. You grow resentful of people who barrage you with cheap paid content, especially if you’ve never heard of them before. Things go viral when friends share them and you hear of something from the people you trust. And Facebook is the best and easiest place to “go viral”. What does Facebook think of this other aspect of its magic that gets tens of millions logging in every day?
“Dan Levy, Facebook’s vice president of small business, says that Facebook’s paid-advertising options have become more effective recently and that companies should view Facebook as a tool to ‘help them grow their businesses, not a niche social solution to getting more reach or to make a post go viral.'”
What are you thinking, Dan Levy? Trying to organically improve reach and get things to go viral is what Facebook is all about. Take that away and it’s just another superhighway riddled with billboards for stuff you don’t care about. There’s a reason that no serious site uses pop-up ads anymore: people despise being bombarded with content they didn’t choose from people who paid to put it there. People love content that they did choose or was recommended to them. When you undermine Facebook’s ability to provide the latter in favor of the former, yes, you make a little more revenue upfront. But you also strangle the golden goose that made you so popular and ubiquitous in the first place.
It’s almost like there’s a brick-and-mortar model for this. Catalogs and magazines. People love catalogs and magazines that they signed up for, that they chose. They hate catalogs and magazines they didn’t want or didn’t choose, seeing it as annoying junk. I got a free Rolling Stone subscription with some tickets to a concert I bought last year and not only did it long outlast the six-month “trial” that started it, but it followed me to New Orleans against my will. They keep sending me threatening e-mails and letters saying the subscription I never chose and never paid a cent for is going to run out and needs renewal. I can’t wait! Whenever I see that they’ve sent me another Rolling Stone, I get angry at the waste. And it’s not like it’s such a bad magazine – I’m just not into magazines. But I am upset instead of neutral because I didn’t choose it. This experience has actually made me like Rolling Stone less.
I guess I’d be a little less confident that this change was going to signal Facebook’s decline if I hadn’t seen something similar happen to so many other websites. Websites are new technology, still, and everyone running them is a tech geek. I think this is why they all believe in perpetual innovation and change and all seem to believe so fundamentally that it is never enough to leave well enough alone. Unless you’re growing, evolving, and have fifty ideas in beta, then you’re looking over your shoulder at someone else who is going to knock you out of the marketplace.
I think this is backwards. I think that most of these sites knock themselves out of the marketplace by overheating and trying too many new things. If your website is dominating the market and audience attention with a certain model, maybe keep on doing what you’re doing. People like that content, feel good about how you’re delivering it. Why stop? Any other business or venture would find it insane to say that things are working really well and you’re on top of the food chain, so radically revamp how things are done. And yet Google keeps tweaking the algorithm and is looking to overhaul the most popular e-mail platform in the world. Facebook wants to stop people from seeing it as a way to go viral or spread unpaid content. Maybe Fandango will soon stop selling movie tickets are start selling bus tickets instead. Or Priceline can start charging each user $2 to see their listings. After all, more upfront revenue, right?! What could possibly go wrong?