This is what happens when Facebook controls the signal, and it defines you as noise

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A food-delivery startup called Eat24 touched off a minor frenzy of anti-Facebook sentiment recently with an open letter that said it is “breaking up” with the giant social network, as a result of the changes that Facebook has been making to its newsfeed algorithms — changes that Eat24 says are so unfriendly it is deleting its Facebook page altogether. It’s just the latest in a series of complaints from brands and prominent users about how the social network is downgrading their content and charging them to reach the followers they used to reach for free.

More than anything, these complaints reinforce the difference between Facebook and Twitter: when a user tweets, it becomes part of a giant stream of billions of messages that are (theoretically at least) available to anyone. That may seem noisy — and Twitter gets regular complaints about how hard it is to filter the stream effectively — but to many it is the way that an open social platform should work.

On Facebook, however, users are at the mercy of the company’s algorithm, which determines what is signal and what is noise. It’s similar to the way newspapers used to determine what readers saw and how much prominence a news story had — a metaphor that has become even more apt given Facebook’s launch of its Paper app, and the comparisons that CEO Mark Zuckerberg and design guru Chris Cox have made between the newsfeed and a newspaper.

Facebook controls what you see and when

Facebook’s response to Eat24’s complaint was interesting: not only did a Facebook PR person mimic the “Dear John” approach the site took in its original post, but they didn’t seem at all humbled or contrite about the network’s behavior. In fact, they suggested strongly that Eat24 deserved to have to pay to reach its users, because its content was effectively advertising and therefore not something many users would voluntarily want to see cluttering up their stream.

“There is some serious stuff happening in the world and one of my best friends just had a baby and another one just took the best photo of his homemade cupcakes and what we have come to realize is people care about those things more than sushi porn.”

When it comes right down to it, this is the central tension that Facebook has to manage, and Twitter doesn’t: namely, how much do users want to control their own stream and choose what they see in it, vs. having the network itself decide what is valuable to them and what isn’t, or even what is spam and what isn’t? And how does it respond to advertisers who think it is running a giant con?

The problem with Facebook implementing algorithms that choose only “high quality” content to show to users, something Cox spoke about in an interview with Mike Isaac of All Things Digital last year — in which he appeared to dismiss viral content from providers such as Upworthy and BuzzFeed — is that users might have a different assessment of what “high quality” means.

Some telecom lobbyists have apparently even drawn an analogy between what Facebook does, in controlling the spread of certain kinds of information, and what cable networks are accused by net neutrality advocates of doing — that is, choosing which kinds of content get preferential access. Of course, the flaw in this analogy is that Facebook doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of control that a quasi-monopoly like a telco or cable company has.

A bait-and-switch campaign, critics say

The kinds of complaints that Eat24 is making have been circulating around Facebook for some time now: Not long before the company wrote its “Dear John” letter, for example, comedian and actor Rainn Wilson complained on Twitter about his increasing inability to reach his more than 200,000 followers or Facebook friends, and the network’s desire to charge him for what he used to get for nothing — which Wilson suggested was an unfair request.

Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and an investor in (and board member of) Facebook, responded with a quip about how Wilson presumably doesn’t offer his comedy for free, the suggestion being that Facebook’s strategy makes sense because the social network provides a service, and one that presumably is worth paying for. Others, however — including venture investor and entrepreneur Jason Calacanis — argued that Facebook’s continuing algorithm changes amount to a “bait and switch” in which the network gets users hooked on free access and then starts charging them for what they used to get for free.

Billionaire venture investor and TV personality Mark Cuban, meanwhile, sparked a similar firestorm in late 2012 when he complained about Facebook’s downgrading of his content and threatened to stop using Facebook for some or all of his media-related efforts on behalf of various investments. Cuban told ReadWrite that Facebook’s “search for revenue has severely devalued every brand’s following and completely changed the economics of consumer interaction.”

Facebook controls the game

While it has been going on for some time, Facebook’s most recent algorithm change seems to have exacerbated this problem for some users like Rainn Wilson — who has a large enough following that one Twitter commenter argued he is effectively a brand rather than just a regular user. For its part, the social network seems to be arguing that it is working to benefit users, not advertisers or brands.

In any case, every successive change or tweak of its algorithms by Facebook — not to mention its penchant for removing content for a variety of reasons, something Twitter only does when there is a court order — reinforces the idea that the company is not running the kind of social network many people assumed it was. In other words, it is not an open platform in which content spreads according to its own whims: like a newspaper, Facebook controls what you see and when.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? For personal brands like Rainn Wilson or Mark Cuban, it means they have to see the network the way an advertiser would, not the way a normal user would — which means they have to pay to get their message through, rather than having it happen organically the way it might on Twitter. It is a very different game, and one that Facebook controls every aspect of. And like the old saw about betting in Las Vegas, the house always wins.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / gip311

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