Facebook, the social network that is no longer social.

Over the last month or so I’ve seen a few articles going around about the most recent changes Facebook has made to it’s fan pages, and especially to who sees the updates. There’s two good articles about it on the New York Observer (Broken On Purpose) and on Dangerous Minds (Facebook: I Want My Friends Back). Both of these focus on the impact to fan pages for small businesses, blogs or similar, but mention in passing that the “promote” button was starting to show up for ordinary users as well.

A couple of days ago I noticed that I could see it, got curious, and decided to do an experiment to see what difference promoting a status actually had.

Yesterday lunchtime I posted two status updates, which both read:

Testing something. Can you ‘like’ this post if you see it?

(may appear more than once, please do same for both)

Set privacy settings on both to friends only, paid the money to promote one of them, and then say back and waited a day. What happened is after the break.

Here’s the unpromoted post.

And here’s the promoted one:

 

You can see a few of my friends:

  1. Picked up on what I was doing.
  2. Are smart arses.

Apart from that, the raw numbers of ‘likes’ on each status were 56 on the normal one, and 79 on the promoted one. Just over 40% more of my friends apparently saw the promoted post than the normal one. There’s a couple of implications from this that I think may actually be worse than the bait and switch on fan pages (although I think there is crossover in the issues).

 

The first is to do with where the additional views have come from. Let’s have a look at what Facebook says about your news feed on its help pages. When they introduced the ‘top stories’ sorting feature, they trumpeted the fact that their algorithms would mean you would see the most interesting content. Their current help pages say the same.

How does my news feed determine which content is most interesting?
The news feed algorithm uses several factors to determine top stories, including the number of comments, who posted the story, and what type of post it is (ex: photo, video, status update, etc.).

If you feel you’re missing stories you’d like to see or seeing stories in your news feed that you don’t want to see, use the different news feed controls to adjust your settings.

There’s no mention there about “if your friends have paid for stories to appear higher in your feed”. That’s one possibility though, that promoting a status overrides their standard algorithm based on interests/common friendships/etc when it comes to whether it appears in your news feed or not.

The other relevant help topic is the one on controlling what level of detail you are subscribed to when it comes to somebody’s updates.

How can I manage the types of updates I’m subscribed to?

To adjust the types of updates you see about someone you’re subscribed to, hover your mouse over the Subscribed or Friends button at the top of their profile (timeline) and click Settings. Uncheck each type of update you don’t want to see in your news feed.

Once you’ve stopped receiving certain types of updates from someone, you might want to resubscribe. Follow the same steps as above and check the boxes next to the types of updates you want to start getting again:

Updates you get
All Updates
Most Updates
Only Important

So the other option is that the additional people have selected or defaulted to one level of update from myself, and promoting a status overrides this setting and forces it into your news feed.

Both of these (or a combination of them) are concerning to me. Let’s assume that Facebook’s normal top stories sorting on your news feed is accurate, and that it brings the things you are most interested in to your attention. This allows that to be overridden, and that means that your news feed is now not what you are most interested in. Let’s assume that you’ve set your subscription levels on each of your friends at the level you want, so that you don’t get unwanted updates from people you’re not too interested in. This allows that to be overridden, and that means that your news feed is now not the people you are actually interested in. Elements of either or both of these must be the case, and they both damage the main reason anyone uses any person to person social network or communication tool – to keep up to date with people they know.

 

That does lead onto the second implication around this, and it’s to do with how people use Facebook and similar sites, and what it means for their daily interaction with the site. Some updates are just statuses (“I am doing XXXXX”), but I know that a fair proportion of the status updates I can see (and the ones that I post) are questions of one sort or another. Either ones where someone’s after information (“How do I do this in photoshop?” / “Where can I get such and such?” / etc), or ones where people are trying to organise something (“Anyone up for the cinema?” / “Anyone able to help me move?” / etc).

Here’s the promote option you see on a status.

Let’s think about if you’re using Facebook to ask a question. Do you pay the money to promote the post, and ask an extra 40% of your friends if they want to go to see a film / know a good online printer / etc, or leave it to just be seen by fewer people? Here’s where the comedy and insanity click in, alongside the damage to Facebook’s core product. Here’s the pricing to tell your friends that this is important.

 

Yup. £5.04 to post a message that more of your friends may see. I’ll remind you again, this isn’t the price to promote a page’s post to its subscribers, this isn’t the price to place an advert, this isn’t the price to push something to people who aren’t your friends, this is the price to ensure that more (but not all) of your existing friends see your status update or question. If you pay your £5.04, you may have more luck using Facebook to organise casual social events, meet up with people, or get help and advice. I know I don’t feel like paying £5.04 each time I want to do that, so let’s think about the assumption we have to make from all of this.

 

Your status update can no longer be considered a broadcast to your friends. The only place you can assume that someone will see your status is if they look at your profile page. Your close friends may not see it because Facebook doesn’t know that you interact in real life a lot, and so doesn’t consider you a top story for them. The defaulting of friends to certain subscription levels means that unless you know that they have been through and tweaked everything, they may not see your status update anyway. If you want to ensure people see something, you have to either message them or write on their timeline/wall. Facebook will start showing Captchas if you do this for a few people in a short time though. The majority of changes that Facebook have done recently appear targeted at stopping people freely interacting on the site, from being social. It’s harder to share events, it’s harder to ask people questions, it’s harder for someone with a craft page to stay in touch with friends, it’s harder for small local bands to tell people who want to know what they’re doing what they’re doing, etc, etc. None of these are advertising (in terms of making people who aren’t aware of your product aware of your product), all of these are the sort of social conversations that people have every day – “do you want to come to the cinema?”, “my band’s playing at the pub tonight”, “has anyone got an old phone they’re selling?”, “can anyone pick me up from the airport?”, “is this telly any good?”, etc, etc.

This is the person to person networking that people do, and this is what Facebook seems to be doing its best to kill.

MySpace failed when it started overkill in adverts around the content users posted and created, and drove people to the easier to use and better working Facebook. Facebook is currently ramping up the adverts around and within (“you may like” posts for companies in the news feed) the content users post and create, and trying to make their users pay advertising fees to break through the noise. My hope is that Facebook’s very own Facebook moment happens sooner rather than later.

image Facebook Beachfront from mkhmarketing on Flickr.

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