When My Blogging Became Spam

Last week, Facebook’s new algorithm determined that posting a link on my timeline to my latest blog post was spam, so it didn’t display the link in anybody’s News Feed, except for the few people who had marked me as their family or close friend. I felt as if I had done something illegal and I was being punished. Because I’m not paying for the platform Facebook is offering, it can shut me out if and when it wants to and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“What clues can history provide about the future evolution of social media? Even though Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms provide a way for people to share information by sharing along social connections, they still resemble old-fashioned media companies such as newspapers and broadcasters in two ways: they are centralized (even though the distribution of information is carried out by the users, rather than the platform owners) and they rely on advertising for the majority of their revenue. Centralization grants enormous power to the owners of social platforms, giving them the ability to suspend or delete users’ accounts and censor information if they choose to do so — or are compelled to do so by governments. Relying on advertising revenue, meanwhile, means platform owners must keep both advertisers and users happy, even though their interests do not always align. As they try to keep users within the bounds of their particular platforms, to maximize their audience for advertising, the companies that operate social networks have started to impose restrictions on what their customers can do and on how easily information can be moved from one social platform to another. In their early days, it makes sense for new social platforms to be as open as possible, to attract a large number of users. Having done so, however, such platforms often try to fence their users into “walled gardens” as they start trying to make money.”

Standage, Tom (2013-10-15). Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years (Kindle Locations 4183-4193). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

436px-Cego_Rabequista_GPEG_

Cego Rabequista, Jose Rodrigues (1828–1887) – Wikipedia

I picked up Tom Standage’s book after I read about it on a blog, and from its first pages I became excited about what it said: that people are wired for sharing through social networks and that social-media ecosystems existed since before ancient Greek and Roman times. I had always been skeptical about social platforms, but this book made me think that I was wrong to stay away, so I decided to see for myself if I could connect with like-minded people the way Cicero did during the 1st century BCE.

I had a public page on Facebook for Rewriting History (I removed it since), so that was where I was going to begin my quest for people interested in story and history, people who were not my family or friends and wouldn’t feel pressured to read my content. I was going to advertise the way any business advertises to reach new customers. I understand how capitalism works even though I grew up in a communist country.

I looked into the services Facebook offered and I found two. First, I could boost a post to get it in front of my friend’s eyes, but who would read such a post? I know I never read sponsored content because sponsored content means two things to me: an agenda and the money that props it. And I hate being lied to—because I grew up in a communist country.

So I tried the second way of doing business with Facebook, promoting a whole page to people who don’t know me. For $5, Facebook guaranteed 6 to 22 likes per day. How? I didn’t quite understand that part. What if nobody liked my page because it was awful? But I didn’t wonder for too long. During the first few hours of promoting my page, I got a dozen new Likes and I maxed out my budget for the day. I was thrilled that there were people out there, people like me, who were interested in reading my ruminations about historical fact and historical fiction.

One thing didn’t look right though: none of the people who liked Rewriting History on Facebook landed on my website to check it out or read a post. I knew this because WordPress and Google Analytics both showed no traffic during the hours when I was raking in those Facebook Likes.

I stopped advertising and waited for those new people to access my blog, post comments, dig through things, but nothing happened. A week later, I advertised again, though this time I was a little worried that I was scammed somehow. But I also felt silly to suspect this, because we’re talking about Facebook here, not a Nigerian prince. Facebook took my money—real money—and they sold me their product. Which had to be real too. I used to work for Microsoft, so I knew that a large corporation can’t run scams, because they can be sued. Big time.

I watched the same rush of people who liked my Facebook page as the first time around and I also received zero page views on my website. I started looking at those people’s profiles, all of them from the US. Real locales, but there was one problem with all of them. They also liked THOUSANDS of other pages in addition to mine. One guy in particular made my skin crawl: on his public profile, he had nothing but pictures of guns and of women’s butts in bikinis. What on earth was this guy doing liking my Rewriting History page?

I used to be the development lead for www.xbox.com so I have some idea of how services work. I have heard of click farms and social bots, fake profiles set up to fool someone at a first glance, but when looked at in detail—and who has time to look at other people’s profile in such detail?—they don’t add up. But still, why would a social bot or someone being paid cents a day in a click farm on the other side of the planet Like my page? I didn’t pay them. I paid Facebook. Facebook is getting my money, and I couldn’t imagine Facebook paying people to like my page.

Then it hit me: I was not the target of those Likes, I was a side effect, collateral damage in a bigger scheme. Bots or clicking humans gave me Likes because they probably liked anything and everything that appeared on the right hand side of their News Feed. They either Like things in bulk or hide the paid-for Likes among a multitude of collateral Likes, in order to look legit. And Facebook can’t or won’t do anything to stop them.

I was torn about my thirty or so brand new Likes I had just bought on Facebook. On the one hand, they made my page look good—165 was the most I had. But then I learned that fake Likes are worse than nothing, because of another part of Facebook’s algorithm, the one that populates the users’ News Feed.

“Fake likes don’t represent real “engagement” with your page. They don’t translate into comments on your posts, or result in those posts being shared with other people. And that’s a big deal, for a subtle reason: Facebook’s algorithm decides how prominently to feature your posts in News Feeds by paying attention to how often your friends and followers engage with your content. If you post something new, and all those people who previously liked your page proceed to actively comment on it and share it and like it, Facebook will automatically give that post a boost. But if all those thousands of people who have liked your page never show up, your content gets downgraded, and nobody sees it.”

“Facebook’s black market problem revealed” by Andrew Leonard

So, after I read Andrew Leonard’s article on Salon.com and watched “Facebook Fraud” by Veritasium on YouTube, I opened the list of people who Liked my page and deleted most of those who had more than 300 Likes.

This exercise in navigating social media gobbled up precious time and money. Trying to prop up my author’s platform on Facebook has already taken countless hours I would’ve been better off putting into my novel. So how did I get sucked into this scheme to begin with?

Writing on the WallI created my blog a year ago after a handful of my writer friends from Louisa’s told me not to fight the system, but embrace it. I was fighting it at the time, but I knew that, as an apprentice writer, I needed to start building my author platform. I had heard the word “platform” many times already, at classes at Hugo House, in writing magazines, rolling off writers’ tongues.

Creating an author platform is great in theory, but quite a fool’s errand in reality. Why? Not because it’s not worth trying to master a new format, to reach an audience, to hone your writing skills, but because we live during the Wild West times of web publishing, where the noise is deafening and the power belongs to the centralized social media hubs.

“That’s why Facebook’s “black box” is worth so much scrutiny. In this social-media house of cards, Facebook holds all the cards. Its algorithms determine how many people see your posts, and how many ads you see promoting other people’s posts. By making “engagement” determine how highly the News Feeds ranks your posts, and by actively selling the process of engagement, Facebook has not only defined the rules of the game; it’s also the only player that knows the rules. Like the U.S. government, it is minting its own currency, regulating its use, and setting interest rates, but all the while the underlying legislation and constitution defining the rules of the game are locked away in a vault.”

“Facebook’s black market problem revealed” by Andrew Leonard

Facebook promised to advertise my content and help me reach real people, but didn’t. Last week, it decided that my content was spam. I have no idea if anything I post now is visible to anybody on my Facebook friends list anymore. I do have my website, but it itself is hard to reach through the thicket of search engine optimizations and search engines’ anti-optimizations optimizations. Yes, I feel clueless and defeated, but only when I look at blogging from an “author platform” perspective.

I can’t gather the traffic numbers for my website that I’m supposed to—20,000 page views a month—but when I forget all about the author platform, I realize that blogging is great. Not only because it’s an activity as old as civilization.

“In the years since the Internet became widespread, it has become commonplace to draw a distinction between “new” media based on digital technologies and the “old” media that came before it. But old media, it is now apparent, was something of a historical anomaly. It began in 1833 with the launch of the New York Sun, with its innovative mass-media model based on amassing a large audience and then selling their attention to advertisers. Look back before 1833 to the centuries before the era of old media began, however— to what could be termed the era of “really old” media —and the media environment, based on distribution of information from person to person along social networks, has many similarities with today’s world. In many respects twenty-first-century Internet media has more in common with seventeenth-century pamphlets or eighteenth-century coffee houses than with nineteenth-century newspapers or twentieth-century radio and television. New media is very different from old media, in short, but has much in common with “really old” media. The intervening old-media era was a temporary state of affairs, rather than the natural order of things. After this brief interlude— what might be called a mass-media parenthesis— media is now returning to something similar to its preindustrial form.”

Standage, Tom (2013-10-15). Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years (Kindle Locations 4049-4058). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Yes, I’m thrilled to engage in a very old art form, an art form that might not make a lot of money to publicly-traded corporations, but an art form that teaches me how to communicate effectively, how to spot narrative arcs in everyday life, how to think like a storyteller in 2,000 words or so. An art form that allows me to connect with a few people with whom I wouldn’t otherwise have time to talk beyond hello and goodbye. An art form that allows me to have a voice that I didn’t know I possessed.

When I was younger, I used to feel a mixture of sadness and embarrassment when I saw a street musician playing in front of a bucket with a few coins and bills in it. I thought, poor man, how desperate he might be to stand here, where nobody has time to listen to him, and to try, and fail, to be heard. Even though I always heard his music and everybody else did too, I thought he failed to be heard. Now, after a year of blogging, I know that my pity was misplaced. The musician was probably the most fortunate person on the street because he had his passion and he was following it no matter who was listening.

Street musician - Wikipedia

Street musician – Wikipedia

Even though my status updates might not be visible in other people’s News Feeds, I will go on writing on my blog about history and story, about fact and fiction, about improvisation and propaganda—because I love to think about these things. I will go on writing even though I can’t post every day when it takes me days, or even weeks, to work on each piece. I will go on writing even though I don’t know how to fight in the arms race of social media platforms and search engines. I will go on writing because I’m passionate about story and words. Because I am a writer and writing is what I do.

15 thoughts on “When My Blogging Became Spam

    • What makes me sad is that Facebook has this huge platform, and all they want to do with it is bend it back to the mass-media model, instead of trying to do something empowering for the users.
      I like the Xbox subscription model, with gold subsidizing silver. Everyone who wants to participate can do that, and the level of service differs based on individual needs. What Facebook does is herd everybody to wherever the company wants to go, and that feels wrong to me. I’m sure not just to me.
      Thanks so much for reading, Brent! I’m happy to hear from you.

  1. Merci Roxana for sharing your experience. With Eva we’re thinking of starting something along these lines and it’s good to know about the pitfalls of relying on FB.

    Thank you as well for your stories, it’s not everyday that I get to learn something about CSG :)

    • If you want to start toying with online marketing, I think it’s best to get the advice of someone who has an idea about it, a consultant, a friend who has done it before. Otherwise it’s crazy how much time and money you can sink into it and get zero results.
      I’m so happy you liked the story about our parents’ workplace. There must be so many stories that we don’t think to ask about. Has your mom told you much about those times?

  2. Here via Michelle. Hello.

    Two or maybe three times a year for the past five years, I’ve done a seminar or a class on blogging. I teach the geeky nuts and bolts how to stuff, and I talk some about what it looks like for me to make my living as a writer. Consistently, my students want desperately to be found, discovered, plucked from obscurity in some Norma Jean to Marilyn scenario, maybe also with the tragic ending, though that’s probably not what they have planned.

    I started “new media” early and have a pretty nice “platform” but only a quarter finished manuscript sitting on my hard drive gathering virtual dust. But I didn’t set out to build a platform, I just used the tools at hand to tell stories because I found the process of getting my essays published kind of inscrutable. I just wanted my words to live outside of my head, outside of my house, and blogging allowed me to do that.

    I love that you’ve called it an “arms race of social media.” And we’re surrounded by people who are battling with Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Vine and SnapChat and I don’t even know what else anymore. That’s different than just writing great stories — unless you use those tools to do so, which I do believe is possible, but is very rare.

    I don’t really have a point, not really, just to say, yeah, I understand. So very much.

    I find I’ve been asking the same thing for the last five years in response to this. It’s “Why? WHY do you want to be found?” Sometimes it’s raw pursuit of attention and/or validation. Sometimes it the creation of a sort of bloggy empire where traffic translates in to money. Rarely — so very rarely — is it “I’m just kinda dying to share these stories.”

    • So glad you’re here, Pam. Thanks so much, Michelle.
      I’d like to come to your next seminar, if possible. I want to learn.
      Why did I start a blog? Ha! I had just finished the first draft of my novel and I needed a break from it. My baby was on the way too, so I knew I wasn’t going to have the brains to work on something big for a while. Blogging, a new format, small pieces that have a beginning, middle and end, seemed so different and refreshing after the huge ensemble of characters and subplots I had been working with. I had to keep writing because I can’t stop working, not really. My brain always tinkers with a narrative line, with an image, a question. I read a lot, so blogging about the many things I read and connect seemed like a good way of holding onto the things I learned and also of offering something useful to the people who might read my blog.
      And the things I learned from this blog are… so many. I will write a blog post soon about it, I’m sure. For instance, after a year of blogging, I tend to begin my scenes in media res – which of course I knew I should, but the verb here shouldn’t be “to know” but “to feel” it, without thinking too much about it. Now I’m able to create tension and to set up clues along the way. I think I’m better at delivering an ending that sets up more questions.
      In any case, I’ll be forever grateful to the people who talked me into trying out this format. It’s like a piano player learning how to play guitar – it all adds up to something bigger and better.
      I guess my answer to WHY? is because I can’t not do it. I like to assemble puzzles made out of words and ideas and, even when I’m the only one who cares, I still like to think about how all the pieces fit together. And then I want to tell other people about my discoveries. I start a lot of conversations with “did you know that…”

  3. Loved this piece (which we found via Facebook, ironically enough). I also love how Facebook and Google continue to shove sites like yours (and ours) aside in favor of those who DO pay for promotion, all the while crowing about how their algorithms are being adjusted to reward “quality content.” We’ve found that diversification of content promotion strategies is essential to ensure that no one social media outlets gains too much control over our destiny. Ultimately, getting readers to subscribe to our newsletter is our monthly goal Best of luck: Your writing is superb!

    • Thanks so much for reading, Bret! I love your website, and I subscribed to your newsletter.
      I know there are ways to keep your head out of the water when dealing with social media, but how much time and effort does that take? I’m working on a novel and that’s hard. I’m working on this blog and that’s hard too. Managing social networks across multiple platforms could be a full time job in itself. I’d very much like to have my social profile portable, independent of platform, and within my control. Wouldn’t that be nice?

    • Thanks so much for reading my story, Michelle. And thanks for introducing me to Pam.
      You probably know lots and lots of things about what goes on behind the curtains at Facebook and the like. We should have coffee soon and maybe you can teach me a thing or two. Or three.

  4. Roxana, As one who influenced (shoved and lovingly directed) you toward blogging because I believe in your brilliance and feel it should be shared with a world that reads far too much crap and never thinks twice about things that really matter, I apologize for this stressful encounter with Facebook and vile corporate double standards.
    Know this; all your articles are thought provoking, moving and incredibly well researched & written. I receive so much to read; blogs, manuscripts, etc., that I get overwhelmed and don’t get it all read, but your blog goes to the top of my list even if I can’t get to it until Sunday morning at 5 AM, I get to it. Always. I learn and grow as a cog in the wheel of humanity EVERY time I read your work. Like that blessed street musician, you are heard. Yes, corporate greed and hypocrisy sucks, always has, always will. But with thought revolutionaries like you there will always be hope for us little people. Thank you for sharing this vital information. Remember, one powerful voice can change the world. You have one such voice. Keep writing. I’ll keep reading. Mindy

    • I like reading blogs, too, not just writing one. It’s pretty much all I read online these days. Blogs about writing, about life, about science, about politics, of course, about astronomy and history. I read everything you post, and that’s the beauty of knowing the blogger personally. I really feel part of the conversation, and this feeling of connection is critical for a writer, who spends most of the time alone.
      I’m grateful to you for convincing me to start down this path. It’s all good for me, even though the social media is a jungle. My mishap with Facebook forced me to string together a bunch of disparate ideas and to find the common pattern, and that is so rewarding for me. I love blogging, no worries. Thank you, Mindy, for getting me to do it and for supporting me along the way.

  5. Roxana: thank you again for a wonderful, enlightening, and honest article. Your facebook experience and the writer’s platform can be a lesson to us all. For years my family were miners in Mexico. My mother had a saying–I don’t want a gold mine, I want to mine the miners. Facebook has found a way to mine the miners. It’s those folks who master that aspect of the social media who get rich. The rest of us, as you point out so well, have to find a close circle of supporters and write to and for them.
    Terrific article, Roxana. So straight. Keep writing, and do find time for that novel.
    As you know, I read your stuff. I like your stuff. I want more stuff like the stuff you put out.
    Jack

    • I’m sure you know much more than I do about how to navigate the social media. One day, maybe you can teach me a bit about your experience. Until then, I’ll follow your advice and focus on the things that matter the most: my storytelling and my stories.
      I’ve started on my novel rewrite, but, Jack, it’s tough. I’m paralyzed some days when I look at the amount of stuff I have that now has to sing together. How on earth will I ever know when it’s done? I like a good challenge, and this is a great challenge, but some days I’m terrified.

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