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.
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?
I 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.
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.