I've recently removed myself from all forms of social media. Many months ago I went cold turkey on the festering cesspit that is Twitter and I've never looked back. In the last few days I had the same realisation about Facebook and Instagram and all the others - they're concentrated idiocy. So I quit. And I feel so much the better for it. Frankly the stunned expressions you see on some people when you inform them that you don't have any sort of social media presence is well worth the price of admission. Or the price of exit as it were.
It wasn't always the case. Social media could have been one of the greatest boons to ever grace mankind. But as with so many of our inventions and achievements it was corrupted by capitalism and perverted into an evil so grand you'd think it was accidentally invented by Thomas Midgley Jr. Alas, what could have been.
One of my favourite sayings is "if you don't pay for something you're not the customer - you're the product". This truism has guided a lot of my decisions of late, for better or worse.
Particularly regarding a little entity known as "Facebook".
A company that is immensely profitable, with an owner worth so many millions that Aaron Sorkin wrote about him, with billions of active users, and none of them pay so much as a penny to use the platform. That should be firing off a lot of red flags in your limbic system.
Are you paying for it? No? Then where does the money come from?
This line of thinking may not be a surprise to you - it certainly shouldn't be with the blowtorch that has been applied to Facebook in recent months (that the other platforms have curiously, so far, avoided). The rise of Mango Hitler and the revelations about Cambridge Analytica had many people asking the appropriate questions about where Facebook's billions came from and the world is slightly better for it.
Now I'd like to branch off and cease treading on old ground. I just wanted a quick recap to refresh everyone's memory and segue into something I think is just as important as the "big data" revelations. Perhaps not as grandiose as that denouement, but just as pertinent and even more cutting on a personal level.
I want you to ask yourself "what has my feed looked like lately?". Has it changed? Does it seem more limited? Are you not getting the full experience that you once were? Have people you used to see regularly on your feed just disappeared into the ether, like dust in the digital wind?
I daresay you have noticed this. Care to explore why?
Facebook's sorting algorithm is an eldritch and arcane mechanism little understood by the common man, lying somewhere between the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter and the climax of Lawnmower Man. Understandably it's a trade secret that they're unlikely to release but just like Big Mac sauce and the 11 herbs and spices, we can take an educated guess.
Facebook heavily weights interaction at the expense of almost everything else. Comments, likes, shares, even searches weight the algorithm in favour of the friends and pages you interact with the most. Conversely pages and people you don't interact with at all get pushed down the list until they disappear entirely. They call this "engagement".
For instance let's say there's a page that posts memes you like. Funny little images that give you a quick chuckle and brighten your day. Unless you hit the like button, or leave a comment, or tag a friend in that infuriatingly stupid modern trend, that page will disappear from your feed. Even though you were enjoying it, away it goes. Because you weren't actively enjoying it.
Facebook detests passivity above all.
This happens with friends too. That's why the number of friends appearing on your feed over the years has steadily diminished. If you don't interact with those friends on a regular basis then the algorithm will weed them out. They haven't unfriended you, but Facey has decided that you want some space and has arbitrarily enforced a sabbatical.
There's obviously a lot more in play (time, mutual friends etc) in how Facebook decides who you should hear from and when, but that's the gist of it.
I understand the face value rationalisation for this algorithm. There are a truly cosmic amount of posts occurring every second on Facebook and that amount of data needs some kind of curation. We're not assaulted by a constant stream of posts from every page we've ever hit like on because Facey doesn't trust us to prune the stream ourselves - weeding out the things we no longer wish to hear about. I might not agree with the principle but if there's one thing the last few years have taught me is that the reason we have a nanny state is because we need a nanny. We're not grown up enough to make our own decisions and Facebook recognises this.
Now there's nothing inherently evil in this behaviour. In fact if you tilt your head and squint it is almost altruistic. Facebook is curating a feed just for you. But dig a little deeper and the black heart of Facebook is laid bare for all to see.
Because Facebook has weaponised this news feed algorithm and has pointed it squarely at you - the user. The content creator. The product.
Welcome to the world of promoted posts.
This feature is used by business entities on Facebook: corporate pages, craft sellers, sporting teams and, as you might guess, writers and comedians. Whenever you create a post on a "fan" page you're confronted, numerous times, with the option to promote or "boost" the post to "reach more of the people who matter to you". Boosting involves paying a fee to Facebook and they, through magic internet power, put that post in the feeds of people you're trying to target.
Seems reasonable right? You pay Facebook to get your thing in the faces of people who might like that thing. That's just advertising. Perhaps even better than advertising because instead of carpet bombing everyone you're targeting the right people. "If you like X, you might like Y".
As always with Facey though, it's not that simple.
Because of the algorithm.
If your fans, the people who have hit "like" on your page, are not actively interacting with you on Facebook - what Facebook calls "engagement", then you'll be pruned out of their news feeds. Your posts will no longer appear. Even though these people have registered themselves as your fans, Facebook has decided - in its infinite wisdom - that your fans don't want to hear from you.
When you pay Facebook actual, real, human, fiat currency to "boost" a post what they're doing is temporarily removing a barrier that they themselves implemented. You, as a creator, are paying to reach the people who have previously indicated that they would like to hear from you.
Facebook holds your own data and fan-base hostage and then has you cough up money to have the platform function as advertised.
Does this seem right to you?
If you're thinking "there should be a word for what Facebook are doing" then you're absolutely correct. And fortunately there is a word for it.
Facebook isn't a social media platform. It's the internet mafia.
There's a legend that the famous hustler Canada Bill Jones was once in a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere, playing a game of poker with the local bar-flies and getting absolutely taken to the cleaners. The kind of game where a player has a hand of five aces. One of Bill's friends sees him being fleeced and says "Bill, can't you see the game is crooked?". Canada Bill Jones looks down at his cards and sighs and says, with wry resignation, "yeah, I know it's crooked. But it's the only game in town."
Facebook might be the only game in town, but I've decided that not playing at all is better than being cheated. I'm done. I'm out. If you want to see what I'm up to then you can find me on here, a platform that might not be as flashy or as regular, but one I control the curation of. One that I pay for.
If you're not paying for it then you're not the customer - you're the product. In the case of Facebook even if you do pay for it you're not the customer - you're the mark.