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Over the past few days, there’s been a lot of sound and fury about how Facebook is allegedly fiddling with the way it filters the news feed to make it harder for brands to get as large an audience for their content as they used to. Billionaire sports-team owner Mark Cuban and former Star Trek actor George Takei are just two of the more prominent users to complain that this tweaking of Facebook’s “EdgeRank” algorithm amounts to a kind of extortion, since it requires users to pay in order to ensure their message reaches their fans. To which the only possible response is: Really? That surprises you? What else did you think Facebook was going to do when it gave you a giant social platform for nothing?
One of the first major complaints came in a piece in the New York Observer that accused the social network of being “broken on purpose.” Not long afterward, a blog called Dangerous Minds wrote a long polemic about how what the social network was doing was “the biggest bait-and-switch in history” — since users (including brands) were enticed to use the service on the understanding that they could use it to build up a giant fan base, and were now being charged for the right to reach those same fans. The cost to do this by paying for sponsored posts, the blog said, was just too exorbitant:
“We simply can’t afford to pay Facebook $2000 to $3200 a day and we can’t afford to do nothing, either. Their shockingly greedy business plan offers us no alternative and we’re not alone.”
Hiding valuable content or blocking spam?
In response to this criticism, Facebook explained — both in a post by one of its engineers and in comments to TechCrunch and Ars Technica — that the newsfeed filtering was designed to eliminate spam and noise, and that it was constantly being tweaked in order to show users things they were actually interested in, not just things that brands wanted them to see. The message seemed pretty obvious: don’t be spammy with your posts and lots of your users will still see them for free. And if you want to spam them anyway, you will have to pay for sponsored posts in order to do that.
This didn’t stop the criticism from flowing, however: one user wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, complaining about the moves by the social network and urging the founder and CEO to remain committed to his stated goal of “giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Actor George Takei responded to this letter with a Facebook post, saying he was devoting a chapter in his upcoming book to the issue. On Tuesday, Mark Cuban — who had been posting complaints on Twitter for days about Facebook’s behavior — unloaded to Dan Lyons at ReadWrite about the impact that the changes were having, and how he wasn’t going to stand for it any longer. The sports mogul and star of TV show Shark Tank said that he was shifting the focus not just of his own presence or that of the Dallas Mavericks but all of the other businesses in which he is an investor to other platforms, including MySpace:
“We are moving far more aggressively into Twitter and reducing any and all emphasis on Facebook. We won’t abandon Facebook, we will still use it, but our priority is to add followers that our brands can reach on non-Facebook platforms first. We have already pushed more to Twitter. The new Myspace looks promising.”
Filtering is necessary for Facebook, and for users
As Wired points out in a response to Cuban’s complaints — and App.net founder Dalton Caldwell also does a good job of explaining — this kind of criticism makes little sense, unless you assume that Facebook is supposed to be a utility of some kind, broadcasting the messages of its users far and wide without any kind of filtering whatsoever. The reality is that a proprietary platform like Facebook is very much a double-edged sword, and Cuban and Takei are feeling the sharpness of that alternate edge: yes, it reaches a lot of people, but it is also a business that faces significant financial pressure.
Do Cuban or any of Facebook’s other critics really think that Twitter or MySpace are going to be any different? Twitter started off as a much more open platform than Facebook — which is one of the reasons that users like me have responded so negatively to some of the restrictions it has been imposing on external services — but it is heading down the same inexorable path. In order to justify their multibillion-dollar market value, both companies have to find new sources of revenue, and traditional advertising just isn’t going to do it. Sponsored content is the future, whether we like it or not.
It’s one thing to excuse George Takei for not realizing the implications of this, but Mark Cuban is a notoriously sharp businessman who routinely criticizes entrepreneurs on his TV show for failing to understand how markets work. Facebook is a business, not a charity or a platform for social well-being — and it provides that platform free of charge, on the understanding that users agree to be marketed to in a variety of ways. The idea that it should somehow allow Cuban to spam all his followers with marketing content for nothing is nonsensical.
Not only does Cuban’s criticism not make much sense from a business standpoint, but as even social-media evangelist Robert Scoble points out, what Facebook is doing by trying to tweak its filtering algorithms is arguably in the best interest of users as well, since they are already being overwhelmed by noise and marketing spam. From that perspective, Facebook has to do what it is doing or it will suffer a lot more damage than some angry emails from celebrity users. We can argue about how it is filtering and the way it is communicating that to users, but the fact that it is doing so seems inevitable.