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In Facebook We Trust. Why?

This post originally appeared on Mizz Information.

As baffling and rage/fear/frustration-inducing as the 24/7 political news cycle is, another–admittedly, much lower key– narrative has been snagging my attention lately: Facebook.

If you read this blog or know me, I know “lately” is a laughingly inadequate descriptor of the time period during which I’ve been obsessed with the topic of Facebook. I’ve actually been ranting about it for most of the ten years I’ve been blogging about social media. (Sidebar: I just realized Mizz Information turns 10 this month, for whatever that’s worth.) But as someone who was managing Facebook for companies back when the platform first rolled out vanity urls (I still remember staying up until midnight to be sure to be the first to claim ASHA’s, only to realize there was a five character minimum, which necessitated the random .org) and the only way to see new comments was to constantly refresh the page because notifications did not yet exist, I’ve pretty much lived through every iteration of Facebook’s business offerings, and there’s been plenty to criticize along the way.

While some people (many people) write me off as “negative” for my never-rosy commentary about Facebook, I personally can’t understand how others–especially the those in the publishing industry–have remained unwaveringly positive about Facebook and continued to invest in a platform so obviously interested in only one thing: Facebook’s bottom line. Which is, of course, Facebook’s right and obligation to shareholders. But the part I don’t understand is the continued belief that Facebook actually cares about stuff like enabling community or helping nonprofits connect with supporters…or just anything, beyond selling ads.

Which brings me to Facebook’s announcement of the Facebook Community Leadership Program, a “global initiative that invests in people building communities.” Because, if you haven’t already heard, Zuck’s resolution this year is to “fix Facebook” and turn it back into a place where people have meaningful interactions with each other, instead of a place where “people’s” + “interactions” = data that Facebook sells to any business, or nation state, for any purpose, even if the cost is democracy. So committed to this fix, Zuck then proclaimed that he was making major changes to the news feed to favor personal interactions because “….if we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community.” 

So back to the Community Leadership Program, to which Facebook “will commit tens of millions of dollars…including up to $10 million in grants that will go directly to people creating and leading communities,” as well as a slate of new tools to help Facebook group admins to drive engagement. On Facebook. 

So, great, right? Facebook helping people help people. Sound vaguely familiar? A year ago to the day of this new community announcement, Facebook announced, in an equally reverent tone, the Facebook Journalism ProjectThey declared that they were committed to “establish(ing) stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry” and would be “collaborating with news organizations to develop products, learning from journalists about ways we can be a better partner, and working with publishers and educators on how we can equip people with the knowledge they need to be informed readers in the digital age.”

Again, yay Facebook, right? Except that just short of a year later, Facebook pulled rug out from under the very same publishers they had pledged allegiance to by changing the news feed to disfavor those very same publishers. Publishers declared their shock and surprise that Facebook would gut punch them like this. Except–wait–at the very same time they were reeling from this gut punch, they were also “marching in the same direction” in terms of Facebook’s new emphasis on Groups over Pages. So, forget the breach of trust and the loss of traffic and revenue from Facebook Pages–Facebook Groups for the win! 

In regular life, when someone professes respect and appreciation for you and declares you their ally, then turns around and kicks you in the stomach, you realize that person sucks and stop trusting them and spending time with them. But so many people have blinders on when it comes to Facebook–especially publishers. Just this morning, my intellectual crush Jay Rosen highlighted a Twitter exchange he had with the head of News Feed at Facebook over the announcement that the largest Brazilian newspaper will stop publishing content on Facebook. Jay mused “I wonder if it’s anyone’s job at Facebook to worry about this, or even poke around and find out why.” How can such smart people genuinely still think that anyone at Facebook worries about anything other than Facebook’s bottom line? 

So back to this Community BS Leadership Program thing…why is anyone thinking that investing time and resources building community via Facebook Groups will result in a different fate than that of Facebook Pages? There is only one reason Facebook is investing money into “leaders who are building community and connection through the Facebook family of apps and services”: Facebook’s future revenue growth. Community leaders are the people who will shepherd people to Facebook to connect with others around shared interests, divulging more and more information about themselves and also spending more time on Facebook. More information=more and more sophisticated targeting options for ad buyers. More time on the site=more ad revenue. And, if experience is any indicator, Facebook’s MO is get you hooked on free then force pay-to-play. So you build your community on Facebook–just like you built that “community” via Facebook Pages–only to have to pay to reach them. The percent chance that this happens with Facebook Groups? I’ll leave that one to you.

I’ll digress before you fall asleep and/or my head explodes but as I wrote a year ago about this exact same thing in the context of the Boston Globe hosting its online community on Facebook’s Groups platform:

“if businesses–including associations–are moving more and more towards being data-driven, and at the same time are starting to recognize the value of online communities, obviously being able to track meaningful metrics for an online community is hugely important, right? So any platform that’s free, is out to serve its own bottom line and interests, AND doesn’t offer any metrics for its community feature–let alone let you tie it back to your own CRM–is not the place to invest in building community. As a funnel back to your owned community? Sure, why not. But as the solution to engagement or revenue problems? Just no.”

Photo by Chris Rhoads on Unsplash

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