Recent changes Facebook has made to Pages & Events have greatly reduced its usefulness for radical political organising. Here I reject the idea that the reason for these changes is political censorship and examine what the actual reasons & effects are. In doing this I'm building on my article of last week that argues that Facebook should be a collectively owned public utility and not a private company - in part because of the way it has sabotaged its own usefulness in the search for advertising revenue.
In summary Facebook has changed the way Pages work (using the EdgeRank algorithm ). The technical details of this have been discussed on many a blog posts, I don't intend to repeat those here. Edgerank checker for instance blogs one source monitoring 3,000 Facebook pages as reporting after September 20th decreases in some types of reach ranging from 45% to 17%. These roughly ties into my own observations over a much much smaller number of pages. In the same blog they quote a Facebook rep as admitting changes have been made and signing off with "Finally, if a page has a piece of content that it feels will be very engaging e.g. A good offer, a great photo, an announcement, etc. then using paid media to “boost” that post to fans in newsfeed can be an effective tool to increase engagement with fans."
Which tends to confirm what I have argued in the previous article, that the changes Facebook has made are best understood as an attempt to generate more revenue from advertising. What I now want to do here is discuss the implications of these changes for political organising, I won't repeat in detail the argument laid out in the previous article but in it I argue that Facebook has become so essential to both individuals and society that it should not be a private company whose primary motive is to make profits for its shareholders. Instead it is long past time it is recognised as a public utility and taken into social, collective ownership of those who use and maintain the service.
Some people have interpreted these changes in the way Pages & Events work as being a political reaction to limit the success of the sort of pages that went viral in 2011 and helped build the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt. While it would not be wise to entirely dismiss the possibility of Facebook making such changes in response to government pressure a far more likely and indeed more fundamental explanation is found in the nature of Facebook as a private company who main goal is to make its shareholders wealthy.
Stock market and advertisers
Ever since its stock market flotation Facebook has been in trouble as the required publication of accounts that went with that flotation revealed that although Facebook has a truly enormous user base the income it derives from that base though selling advertising is very small. At the same time the hype has gone out of the theory that online ads targeted to individuals actual interests would be much more effective then conventional advertising. With the result that the amount companies are willing to 'pay per click' for online advertising has declined and will probably decline further.
How much attention do you pay to the targeted ads that appear to the right of your feed? How often do you click on one of them? Probably the answer to both questions is 'very little' and that is where Facebook's problem is.
So plan B is to sell advertising to Page maintainers and Event promoters. The theory is that these ads should be much more effective for the advertiser because they appear as a normal part of the user feed and are about something the user (or their friends) have already chosen to opt into by LIKEing a page. By making the costs of an individual ad fairly cheap Facebook is hoping to capture revenue even from unfunded and low funded volunteer organisations. As an example advertising a post promoting the annual Dublin anarchist bookfair to the 8,500 followers of the Workers Solidarity Movement Page would only cost in the region of 8 euro, considerably less than the 100's of euro that are spent on promotion via posters or flyers. This is the first indication that the reasons for these changes are to be found in business interests of capitalism rather than political censorship even if of course applying a charge to the ability to communicate with people is also a form of censorship.
We can still go viral
Anecdotally it appears that the most important political effect of Facebook, the ability of a post to 'go viral' so that it reaches large numbers of people is still there. A recent example of this is when the page of the Dublin radical youth magazine Rabble shared a photo on their page of an envelope addressed to BNP boss Nick Griffin. That image was rapidly shard by 11,000 people - Rabble at the time had under 2,000 followers. The context was that Griffin had tweeted the home address of a gay couple who had taken a successful discrimination case on twitter and thus there was a high interest in sharing his address in turn. The high viarilty of that post demonstrates that it is probable that the sort of Tunisian / Egyptian pages that went viral in 2011 would probably still go viral under the new set up. In those sort of cases users would also be highly motivated to check for updates on a page rather than simply relying on them appearing in their feed. (Rabble subsequently had its wrist slapped by Facebook for sharing the image)
In those cases a huge proportion of users would be highly motivated to check for updates, visiting the pages to do so if necessary. Facebook actually notices that level of interests, and makes it more likely you will see future posts, so its probable that in such cases a much higher proportion of users than the average 12% would see Page posts in their feeds. There may well be a reduction in how likely something is to go viral and how far it will spread once it has done so but the Rabble example above suggests that the viral effect is still with us. On the other hand the blog linked to above does report the greatest drop for viral reach, a drop of some 45%. We have to presume this is by design and therefore Facebook has decided to make it much more difficult for a post to 'go viral.'
This is curious as from a capitalist point of view the reasons for Facebook wanting to damage the viral effect are not so obvious as it it very unlikely that voluntary groups would have the resources to pay for pseudo-viral reach anyway. That said the new advertising regime encourages us to try, with the Bookfair for instance the Anarchist Bookfair organisers could choose to buy a pseudo viral reach by paying about 800 euro to promote a post onto the page of everyone who is a friend of someone who follows the WSM page. Basically the same as getting every one of the existing 8000 friends to share a post - that 800 euro buys the post appearing on almost 500,000 individuals pages. This probably exceeds the current advertising budget for the bookfair but as most followers of the Workers Solidarity page are in Ireland its probably a way of reaching 300,000 plus people who could go to the bookfair.
In Ireland at least it appears that some of the tabloid newspapers have started to pay for this pseudo-viral effect, at least I've seen posts from tabloids appear in my feed even though I know I haven't liked their pages. But while 800 euro is nothing to a tabloid it is a huge sum for the average voluntary group. The sums involved for 'for profit' companies who probably couldn't generate organically viral posts anyway are quite cheap - for comparison Red Bull spent an estimated 48 million sterling last year in marketing in Ireland & Britain, 800 euro is peanuts for that sort of PR budgeting, they could spend it many times a day.
What Facebook have targeted for ad revenue is the passing 'slight interest' followers that advertisers would be most motivated in engaging. This would appear to make sense, I might for instance have liked the Old Spice page at some point in the past because of their quirky advertising campaign but am not so likely to be checking the page on a regular basis. So Old Spice would find spending 1c per 10 users (that appears to be the rough cost for the WSM page) to remind me of my love of their fragrance very cheap.
What it all means
In terms of political usage what I think this translates into is that during sudden surges in interest like the start of Occupy pages can still go viral but once things have died down it becomes very much more difficult to continue to reach those people as they disengage. I'd imagine almost everyone reading this LIKEed at least one Occupy page last years and quite probably several. I'd also imagine that you very rarely see posts from those pages now even if the Page remains active (as many do). And the changes made mean it is very much less likely you will see them in future.
In summary the probable political effects of Facebook destroying the effectiveness of Pages & Events in order to make money for its shareholders will not be on the likelihood of sudden explosions of activism. Rather it will be much more insidious, it will be on the ability to sustain, nurture and develop those movements after they have peaked. It is now very, very much harder (read more expensive) to maintain contact and engagement with large numbers of people after the initial surge of anger that pulled them into activism has subsided.
What this means is that it doesn't make sense to put as much energy into recruiting people to political Pages as was previously the case because you subsequently won't be sure of reaching those people. And very much more importantly it is now much more essential to get people to give you other contact details that will remain reliable into the future, a Facebook like is NOT a reliable way of continuing to get news.
This is easier said than done. The big advantage of Facebook is that it added massive power to the effect of soft loose networks because through making the very casual gesture of LIKEing a page huge numbers of people could be engaged in sustained contact. This is no longer so easy. I maintain the Anarchist Writers page, the nature of which means we only post very occasional content when a new article or blog is added. The effect on traffic driven from the page to the web site has been huge, it appears that this has fallen to 30% of what it was at the start of the summer.
What is the alternative?
First off the major problem is that there isn't one. Facebook is useful because its enormous user base gives a netwrok effect that is not appraoched by any other social networking system. I explore the theory behind this in the article Kicking off the 2011 Revolts in the age of the Networked Individual. That is why I'm arguing that Facebook needs to be seen as a utility and taken into public collective ownership. What steps can be taken in the meantime to counter act the negative impact of these changes Facebook has imposed?
A little over a year ago, in part due to the reduction of the effectiveness of events, the WSM started a program of trying to encourage contacts to self-register in our online email contact system. That system, built out of CivicCRM, means that we can be sure of at least sending an email to anyone who has indicated an interest in working with us on a particular area until they choose to opt out of receiving future mails. It gives both them and us a huge amount more control over what messages people receive / are sent than Facebook does.
The theory is good but the reality is that people are very much more reluctant to make the effort to self-register or even to complete a form at an event than they are to click LIKE on Facebook. Even many activists who are close to us politically and would for instance regularly march with us haven't registered, although almost all LIKE our page. The overhead of maintaining such a system is also considerable for us, it was a lot of work to create, its significant work to maintain and sending out each notification takes several times the effort of posting to our Facebook page.
There are two lessons to be drawn and both warn against an over dependence on Facebook.
For organisations it is even more essential to create and build methods of communication that are under your control. That is methods based on email and mobile phones.
For individuals who care about winning it is important to pay attention to other ways of getting communications from organisations you want to work with and to take the time to make the slightly greater effort that will be involved in signing up to them. As a first step take the time now to self-register on the WSM contact system.
Image: Andrew Flood