Recently, Facebook decided to change the way they populate user's newsfeeds. Many of you have probably noticed items in your feed that you haven't subscribed to or liked, and other things that used to show up in your homepage all the time now very rarely appear or never show up at all. Those of you who haven't noticed, it's time to come home from Farmville and complete the Candy Crush Saga already. Experts claim this is the first step in the move towards making Facebook "pay-to-play," and this may be true. Unfortunately, while most companies may be able to afford this new model, there is one group that has relied on Facebook's organic approach to homepage advertising for years to bring their message to the public without much expenditure. Some might claim that the messages espoused by this group may be some of the most important to maintaining our societal wellbeing and keeping our moral compass pointing straight and true. Of course, I'm referring to 501c charities and not-for-profit corporations, the people who are going to be especially hard hit by the new Facebook news feed algorithm.
The first question that I have before we even begin to dissect the mechanics of how not-for-profits are getting the royal screw job, there is a question I have to ask: Why am I the only one who has raised this question? For many years, Facebook has been a very important tool for getting the message out about disease, poverty, tragedy, natural disaster, and has become an invaluable resource for allowing people to turn their desire to assist into actual, factual help. Be it financial donations, volunteering time, or simply helping to share stories and information about illnesses and events that help others cope with their personal tragedies every single day, the organic nature of "The Social Network" has been a boon for anyone asking for help. Without any request for remuneration or compensation, "The Facebook" has allowed their services to be used by every not-for-profit advocacy group and charity out there who can find someone tech-savvy enough to create a simple page, and it didn't take much Internet acumen to do to so -- so, really, anyone who needed to could make their own Facebook page where users could click "like," and add the posts of that particular organization to their home page newsfeed.
Now, though, the new algorithm has created a situation where users don't necessarily see posts from the pages they have clicked like on, but they do see posts from other pages that Facebook has deemed "interesting." It's a funny word, "interesting." Standing alone with nothing to qualify it, the word's meaning can be defined so broadly that it can pretty much encompass any topic at all. The Facebook page that attempts to explain the new homepage setup asks, "How does my newsfeed determine which content is most interesting?" Well, to that I ask, most interesting to whom? Me, or a sheep farmer in rural Greece? While I'm sure that a post about the playing music for goats to make them give more milk will skyrocket in popularity in pastoral Greek areas, it isn't exactly going to burn up the charts here in my New York Metro community.
Even though Facebook claims to use the number of comments, who posted the story, and what type of post it is (video, image, update), the simple fact is that the term "interesting" leaves way too much undefined for it to be a useful way to describe the new inner works of homepage advertising. Useful to us end users, that is. The situation is quite the opposite for Facebook and its corporate customers, they absolutely love ambiguity. In addition, I'm quite sure that this word "interesting" was created specifically to provide a handy explanation as to why the latest post from the local food store chain about their sale on salisbury steak made it into your personal newsfeed. Let's be honest here folks, this new setup has given Facebook a way to engage in that most American of practices -- payola.
Ironically, I'm usually the first to defend capitalism and the free market system in all its greedy glory, and there are many times that the old Gordon Gekko axiom holds true -- greed is good. In this situation, though, I think there is something at risk of being lost that is more valuable than money, gasp! Here in the U.S. we pride ourselves on being purveyors of truth, justice, and freedom, a.k.a. the American way, and we never hesitate to patrol the world like the cops that we have become, on the lookout for human rights abuses and the spread of terrorism. (It used to be communism but we fought that foe and won, or so they tell me. Mr. Putin? Thoughts?) This policy is, in part, what fuels that wonderfully unique American sense of morality, and we wield it like a sword whenever we want to look down our noses at some Banana Republic dictator who has just made the mistake of killing a few hundred thousand people outside of his own backyard. After a while, we won't stand for that, no, we're the U.S. of A! Well, folks, why do you think we have the ability to get away with having such a high opinion of ourselves on the world stage? It's because we always help those who need it, and Americans, on the whole, give more money to charities per capita than just about any other country. This is in no small part due to Facebook, who has made it exponentially easier for not-for-profit organizations and charities to reach their target audience.
Many charities have upped their exposure, and thus donations, by running Facebook campaigns, and the social site has become a necessary step in any not-for-profit's playbook. Now, we are in serious danger of losing this essential tool that helps even orphan diseases and lesser-known causes get their message out. More than donations, though, we are going to lose something much more intangible if these organizations get swallowed up by the corporations who can afford the payola scheme Facebook has now set up: we are going to lose an essential part of our American moral fiber, and that's a loss that's irreparable.
Up until now, Facebook has mainly been a meritocracy. If your page and the posts you made on that page were worthy of notice, then people would like them, and those likes would translate into more views, which would generate even more likes, and so on, ad nauseam. In other words, if people liked your stuff, then you'd get more popular, thus rewarding those who deserved it. Even charities and not-for-profits with less than universal messages were able to get Facebook airtime by coming up with clever or controversial posts that got shared so much that they went viral. It was a microcosm of the American Dream, where a poor, non-tech-savvy retiree who created a Facebook page about the berets she made for house cats had the same chance of becoming popular as did the multi-millionaire who wanted to sell his talking toasters for $19.99 a pop. It was a point of pride for Zuckerberg and his crew, and if it wasn't, it should have been. Now, though, Facebook has taken the meritocracy and turned it into a dictatorship, almost overnight. Now an "algorithm" created by the people who run Facebook will control what it is that you should find interesting, and those who have the ability to pay for play will see a boost in their pages, while the elderly cat beret saleswoman has to fold up her knitting table and drown her cat models in the local stream. No longer will not-for-profits and charities that survive on donations and usually have little or no money to spend on marketing be able to grab equal footing on Facebook. We are, quite literally, taking one of the best things about America and relegating it to the back of the bus because it cannot afford a first-class ticket.
Folks, I don't have to tell you that the U.S. is not what it once was, and we are drowning in Honey-Boo-Boos and teenage daughters who sue their parents for support. With this new move, Facebook is taking one of the few things we have left to show off as a point of pride in this aging country, and effectively sounding its death knell. We need something to balance the scales against the likes of the Kardashians, and although it seems like a small shift, know that Facebook now has control of what you and all the other users see in their newsfeeds, and that's a scary thought considering that Facebook has more than 1/6th of the world worth of users. Yes, those 1.2 billion accounts include one for my cat and one for a melted snowman named Chad, but many of them reach real people. The company claims it gives "people the power to share," but, unfortunately, those people now reside at the Facebook corporate headquarters.
Facebook's mission statement:
Founded in 2004, Facebook's mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.
For more of Daniel P. Malito's work, check out http://www.danielpmalito.com.