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Symbiartic

Symbiartic

The art of science and the science of art.

Facebook Now Holding Your Audience for Ransom

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I wasn’t an early adopter of Facebook. I couldn’t possibly have been less interested, but a friend asked that I join so we could keep in touch, so I obliged.

Seven years later, I’m one of the millions that checks Facebook every day. Not so much because of my personal life, but because of my Facebook page for Beatrice the Biologist. Up until one year ago, I had a very small following. A few hundred people. But then a little Facebook page called I F***ing Love Science (perhaps you’ve heard of it) came on the scene and started occasionally sharing science comics in between the pictures and random factoids. I messaged the page administrator Elise Andrew with a JPG of my comic “Amoeba Hugs” and basically said, “Here’s this comic I did. If you want to share it, that’d be cool, and if not no worries.” Share it she did, and overnight my audience quadrupled. I was thrilled.

Several more comics shared by IFLS with a link to my Facebook page brought in droves more people over the past year. Currently I have over 135,000 of these sought-after “likes” on the Face of the Book.

While my page was growing (much to my delight after several years of lonely blogging), Facebook was changing the way Pages reach their audience. After they went public, there was soon this option to “promote a post.” Prior to this you could promote your Page by buying ads that run alongside the newsfeed to gain new followers, but as far as paying money to reach your existing audience—not so much.

The “boost post” button is alongside a number displayed below each post that only page managers can see: the exact number of people that “saw this post.” Of course if only a fraction of your audience sees your post, you’re going to want to reach out to them. I paid for one promoted post—an update in which I shared information regarding how to subscribe to my posts by email, so that “no algorithms get between us.”

When people criticized Facebook for withholding our established audience from us lowly Pages to extort us for money, Facebook claimed that the average person simply has too many friends and likes too many Pages for them to find seeing every single update useful. You see, Facebook simply has to filter things, or Facebook just won’t work. How odd that almost every other form of technology is allowing increasing degrees of personalized customization, and Facebook instead is taking control away from users.

But I kept chugging along, uploading images of my comics directly to Facebook for people to like, share, and comment on. As my audience grew, so did the number of responses to my posts, and I felt lucky to finally have an audience that was excited to see what I was creating. Still, from time to time I considered shutting the page down and walking away from Facebook because I just can’t stand the way Facebook tries to squeeze creators, maintaining a system that sees no difference between large advertisers and individuals like me.

And then I read this. Facebook will start to roll out a new algorithm that will stifle Pages’ organic reach to a mere 1-2% of its established audience unless, of course, you pay to reach the rest of them.

Before I tell you how much this costs, let me just say that I don’t think Facebook is evil simply because they want to make money. I have no delusions about its for-profit nature, and I completely understand that I’ve had a free ride this whole time (minus the pittance I’ve given them in a few ads and a promoted post a year ago). Over 100,000 people have found my work as a direct result of Facebook. It’s a valuable service, and one that I wouldn’t even mind paying some money for, if it were reasonable. Let’s say Facebook wanted me to pay $10 a month to reach my established audience. Even though that’s technically holding them ransom, I would consider it. But that’s not the case here.

For one update—one link, one picture, one text-only fart joke—Facebook’s default setting suggests I pay $400. For one post! So if I post 2 times a week (which is what I average), we’re talking well over $3,000 a month. Whaaaat?! Does Facebook know about some fortune I am sitting on that I am unaware of? Please enlighten me, Marky Z!

I don’t have to spend $400, though. For $30 I can reach half of my established audience. That’s a deal, right? And Facebook’s cost options go all the way up to $3,000. The bargains are endless! Again, for a single Facebook update.

And to round out my frustration, when I do pay to boost a post, I can’t just aim it at my existing audience. My options are to push it to “people who like my page and their friends” or “people I choose through targeting.” By random targeting, they mean something like “women age 20-35 who live in Los Angeles and have graduated from college.” That doesn’t interest me, so the former option is more relevant. But still, I don’t want to pay to reach my followers and their friends. I want to reach my followers! If someone doesn’t like my page, I don’t want to spend money reaching them. I’m not Coca Cola, for whom all eyeballs are equal. The more people who see their ads, the better. That’s not me. I don’t want to pay for just anyone to see my posts. I want to reach the people that have already indicated they want to see my work!

And so, when this new algorithm rolls over my Page, I will simply stop updating, because I don’t want to share a comic and see that 1% of my audience got to see it. That’s just too depressing, and there is absolutely no way I can afford to reach them. Facebook’s unreasonable structure will murder my Page.

So what is a lowly science-comic-drawing, poop-joke-making individual such as myself to do? Ride off into the Wi-Fi-less sunset, scribbling comics on dried leaves, and tying them to pigeons? Maybe. But for now, I’ll escape to the likes of Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+, and I’ll just have to hope that some of my followers will, you know, follow me.

And as sad as I am about the prospect of potentially losing 135,000 fans, I feel like it might not be such a bad thing to move on and let people follow if they choose, because I’ve found that when I get droves of new fans from Pages like IFLS, some of them arrive with no idea what my work is about and leave odd comments. One person who left a rude comment messaged me afterwards and apologized, for she did not realize that I had drawn the comic she derided. She thought that Beatrice the Biologist was yet another aggregate for science images. It seems with the rush of Facebook science pages reaching millions of people by sharing loads of (often unattributed) artwork, people have completely forgotten that someone, somewhere actually had to sit down and draw that picture or take that photo, and are shocked when they realize that it was you.

Other social media platforms do not have the user base that Facebook does at the moment, so I know I’m not going to get 100,000 followers again, but that’s not necessarily bad. I should have never allowed myself to value myself and my work based on how many Facebook likes I had in the first place.

Remember, everyone: social media platforms, no matter how successful and ubiquitous, are like dogs. You let them into your life, you love them and feed them, but you'll also outlive them.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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