Death of a Platform: How Facebook killed burgeoning communities

Facebook

For those of us in certain age range the omnipresent reach of Facebook into our lives is a familiar social safety blanket. This tool is a simple way to host photos and let friends know about this weekend’s festivities. Yet slowly and subtly Facebook went from a helpful aid in party planning tool or covert partner is anonymous, online stalking to the perfectly pervasive social panacea. Rather than having to keep in touch with friends and family via seeing them, letters, email or phone calls you could passively track your friends via wall posts, tags, and checkins. It also turned us all into our own public relations representatives policing our profiles to ensure we keep only our best feet forward, uploading only the most flattering and pristine “selfless” or our most ingenious statuses.

Facebook hate is all the rage with members dropping profiles in droves and user decrying the constantly changing user interface and laissez-faire attitude toward privacy. While Facebook has more than its own fair share of negatives it had one exceedingly awesome positive; it was the ideal community platform.

When starting a new interest group Facebook was the ideal platform for sharing ideas, content, and relationships with fan. Establishing a vibrant, interactive community was a simple as creating a group page, filling out some content, and sharing that page with friends, friends of friends, and outright strangers. Anyone interested in your content got updates as often as you provided them and if someone lost interest they could simply unfollow your group.

When Facebook implemented these changes it caused an explosion of fantastic groups with all manner of interests. It was truly an enlightenment era of community. Yet as history has shown far too often when a new medium shows itself to be worthy it isn’t long until the entrenched status-quo takes notice and subvert it for their own purpose. In Facebook’s case this happened when corporate interests realized that Facebook was a much more effective marketing tool for their prized demographics than traditional media.

I don’t know why anyone would be possessed to like or follow a corporation like Nike or Pepsi or Apple or Budweiser. These companies already have an overwhelming presence in the lives of the average human through other forms of advertising that inviting them to advertise (for free) within your Facebook news stream seems to me to be surrendering the battle of consumer independence to the advertising behemoths outright. Yet it happened en-masse as thousands and hundreds of thousands of people liked these major corporations Facebook pages for one reason or another. This then led to the first real Facebook user complaint; too much vapid, meaningless tripe from disinterested parties in your Facebook news feed.

I don’t fault corporations for engaging users on Facebook. Nike for example can spend an incomprehensible amount of money on creating and running a television spot to advertise their latest running shoe. This comes as considerable cost to them and can often be risky if the advertisement campaign fails to influence public opinion of the show in the positive direction and thus increase sales of said shoe. Meanwhile, under the original Facebook behavior, they could post weekly or daily or even hourly about the new shoe for free on Facebook and have those advertisements disguised as posts reach every one of their hundred of thousands of fans on Facebook.

But if you are the typical Facebook user who has liked everything from three shoe companies to Walmart to television stations to hotel chains in the hopes and promises of winning contests or getting “exclusive” Facebook deals you suddenly ran into a problem where a large percentage of your news feed was cluttered with corporate chaff and not the content you actually wanted from friends and family on your feed.

Facebook responded to these events by inventing their solution to the problem which they called Edgerank. Edgerank is Facebook’s way to sort through all the content that is headed for your news feed and to remove everything that you wouldn’t want to see. How does Facebook handle this? Well it uses the following criteria to determine for you what shows up in your feed.

  1. Affinity: This means the more you interact with another Facebook user the more likely their posts will show up in your feed. Nothing illustrates this functionality more than the breakup. Have you ever noticed that after a breakup Facebook seems to be taunting you with your ex? Every little status update of their reaches your wall their photos show up in the random photos area and even their interactions with that cute mutual friend they always said they had a crush on are showing up in your feed. This is because Facebook knows you were dating, that you shared things on your ex’s wall, liked their photos and statuses, clicked on their profile page, etc. Thus Facebook has assigned them a high affinity rating and they are more likely to appear in your news feed.
  2. Weight: While affinity is user based weight is a rating based on content. The more likes, comments, and shares a status update, video, photo, etc gets the higher its weight value. The higher the weight value of a particular post the higher reach the next post will have automatically.
  3. Time Decay: This simply means that the reach of a post will decrease with time. A post that reached a ton of users on a Monday will reach a fraction of users on a Thursday. Thus pushing older posts further down someone’s news feed the older a post gets.

On the face of things this sounds perfectly reasonable and in many ways for users and large corporate sponsors this is a great solution to the problem. If you are friends with a high school classmate on Facebook but you never interact with that user and their baby photos aren’t gathering hundreds of likes and shared then you are spared their mindless drivel in your news feed. Yet that friend you talk to three times a day who you are always sharing things back and forth on each others walls and whose photos you are always tagged in will be a prominent fixture in your news feed. Where this fails terrifically though is when it comes to groups.

Once Facebook introduced Edgerank, community management ceased being about providing great content to your community and more about gaming the system to increase affinity and weight through social engineering. Lets look at why this is the case.

The biggest change that came with Edgerank when considering groups was that no longer was every post by a group going to reach one hundred percent of a groups users. Instead roughly sixteen percent of a groups audience are going to see a post. Doing that math that means that Facebook implements a new standard into their system and groups lost eighty-four percent of their audience. This is a huge loss in numbers without any real recourse.

What does this mean for group pages in a practical sense? Well, it means that if order for your content to reach a larger percentage of your audience your content has to have previously reached a larger percentage of your audience. Which is as much of a “Catch–22” as it sounds. Since Edgerank is heavily influenced by the weight scores of older content it puts pressure on content creators to create compelling content that gets user interactions via likes, shares, and comments. But not all content is the same in the Facebook ecosystem.

An article like this, shared on Facebook, may get read by many who consume such media passively. They may agree or disagree with the sentiment but aren’t inclined to comment or share the article despite having enjoyed reading the article. Yet there are tons of consultancy firms that are happy to help a company increase its social media significance via psychological trickery. See the following images to see what I mean.

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Instead of providing interesting, quality content to fans of their pages the general idea is to post 1.37 posts a day with at least one question and an image to encourage user interaction. Yet this often leads to posts that show an image of two things with an instruction to “like” to vote for one or “share” to vote for the other. A pandering attempt to increase the weight of a post to make a page appear to have higher quality content without actually having it.

What is worse though is that Facebook has realized that sometimes you might want to buck the trend and reach your whole audience for an important announcement. Maybe you have a special promotion, a time-sensitive article, or contest that you want to have reach a higher audience. Well you are able to reach a higher percentage of your audience if you are willing to pay for it. The more people you want to reach the more you have to pay. Which for larger corporations who want to artificially increase their likes works wonderfully. For a little podcast that wants to insure its fans get high quality weekly content as well as being apprised of its goings on it is a little less realistic.

Optimistically one could take the view that Facebook realized that a community might want to pay to increase weight for their posts temporarily to share important news or other critical content and provided a way for groups to promote their posts like advertisements. The pessimistic view is that Facebook saw that these corporations were getting a ton of free advertising on their platform and changed their formula to encourage payment for those exposures. What happened instead is that the corporations responded by gaming the system to increase their exposure without paying for it. Or at least for a drastically decreased price.

The result is that those communities attempting to provide quality work are getting penalized when compared to shameless PR departments who post photos or questions irrelevant to their brand just to increase Edgerank. The system that was implemented to decrease the amount of uninspired, tedious, and insipid content on your news feed has actually created an ecosystem where that content thrives. The only difference is now Facebook has incentivized paying them for the privilege of what was once free.

I don’t want to exclusively blame Facebook for this change in model. They initially were responding to a problem that was easily solved by industrious users. Simply no longer liking a company’s fan page or ceasing to be friends with people you have no interest in can also remove the social dross that doesn’t interest it. Rather than having two thousand or more friends for whom only six percent interest you we users could have been more disparaging in how we invited content onto our news feeds.

Sadly Pandora’s Jug has been opened and we are left with the system before us as Facebook erodes our privacy and increases their stock price. Just don’t think my complaint with the platform comes from a hipster, faux-iconoclast rebelliousness. My complaints with the social networking giant are extremely specific.

Thank you for indulging me during this off-topic diatribe. Next entry will be back to our regularly brew related topics. Sometimes you just have to name the devil dragging you down.