A retrospective of 14 years of Facebook
I opened my Facebook account in 2006, during the tail end of my senior year at Western Washington. With a .edu email address — as was required for registration at that time. As irony would have it, it was recommended to me via my mom, who had run into a high school friend of mine and his mom at the grocery store, and requested we connect.
We never did connect. Even though I would quite have loved to stay in touch with Trent all these years. Now, in retrospect, that origins seems entirely fitting.
Too many essays and videos have already been created about leaving Facebook — including by yours truly. I’m not going to rant about being shadow banned, or about declining visibility of my work, or increasing censorship. I’m not going to lament the politicization of the platform, and of the corruption of data selling and covertly funded propaganda. I’m not going to talk about the toxic, casino-modeled addiction that is newsfeed scrolling, and the toll I estimate it’s taken on my mental and physical health. I’m not even going to focus on the outright danger I feel Facebook’s data collection poses for my family — or that I’m 95% sure that Mark Zuckerberg and his buddies (funded by the US military) are building a clone army.
The decision is already made. It’s done.
This essay is me chronicling the experience for posterity’s sake. Like a time capsule. And perhaps for my own edification. I find that when we walk away from something that’s been a large part of our lives, we’re doomed to repeat our patterns of trauma unless we lay ourselves bare and perform an honest post mortem. We need to understand what just happened. Not because we have the hubris to believe that we can prevent all bad things and abuses from happening to us. But because if we can understand the cycles, we can adjust our expectations, and better prepare ourselves for the seasons of suffering and joy life brings.
So what the hell happened with Facebook?
I don’t know, man. Maybe it’s a sign of my age. But it just seems like one day, I’m walking around with a simple flip phone, reading and writing and working and hanging out with friends and doing shit like a person, and the next day there’s this alternate world where geography has no meaning and everyone yells at each other all the time and every word has a coded meaning within the righ/left, red/blue paradigm. It’s like falling into that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Darmok and Jilad, where the people’s language is entirely based on references to its own stories, and is therefore unintelligible.
But that would make it seem as if I had no agency in the process, and that would be very inaccurate.
Facebook and I have had a very complicated relationship over the last nearly decade and a half.
At first, it was — as the cliche always goes — simply a way to stay in touch with friends. I emphasize friends, not family. Family came later, and rather begrudgingly.
“Might as well change the name to Mombook,” I said when Zucks opened the platform up to all .com email addresses. Moms flooded the platform; beer pong selfies became a thing of the past, and a weird tension was created as we elder millennials, as young adults, lay our lives under the scrutinous gaze of our parents and extended family members. That was the first wave of ugliness. I think it was a particularly unfortunate combination, honestly: to mash up young adult millennials with their boomer parents and smug, cynical Xer siblings in what amounted to a digital petri dish was a rather cruel experiment, in my opinion.
But we adjusted, as we lab rabbits usually do, and then came the next tantalizing wave: Facebook Business Pages.
I was literally at the cusp of my white collar career as a creative contractor in 2010, when Pages were released, and as a young, tech-savvy creative, I leveraged its potential for all it was worth. Which, in 2010, was quite a bit. During their first few years, Business Pages enjoyed the same organic (i.e. free, unpaid, unsponsored, unwhatevered) newsfeed visibility as the posts of regular users. Which, at that time, was also quite different, being run by a much simpler — and ad free — algorithm.
There were no ads in the newsfeed. No sponsored content. Just posts by friends you interact with most frequently and businesses you follow.
This was, in many ways, a golden era for digitally nimble small businesses. For that brief window of 2010–2012(ish), businesses had free access to a digital platform which allowed them to communicate simply and directly with people who wanted to hear from them. People followed the local and small businesses they loved. Those small businesses published information about their process and products. People then bought more of those products, and expanded their business by sharing valuable links and word of mouth referrals. All at no cost to the business except time.
The visibility and engagement rates were absolute bananas, by today’s standards. Say I created a Facebook Business Page, and got 100 people to like it, and I posted something from the business page (sponsored or boosted posts weren’t even an option at that point). I could expect 50–70 people to see that post. Business pages that spammed their followers with endless coupons got unfollowed. Business pages that offered valuable and creative content got more followers, and their business grew. It was — at the risk of coming off conservative — a pristine example of free enterprise economics at work in the digital space.
It was so…simple. And organic. As all good things are.
Between 2010 and 2014, I almost singlehandedly took an urban development and property management brand from its inception, to a website which consistently hit the top 3 organic (unpaid) Google results for “grand rapids downtown apartments” — a highly competitive term attainable usually only by national third party aggregates. We also had an apartment waiting list of over 2,000, despite the quiet fact that we only managed 90 apartments. That search engine success was built on my aggressive blogging/brand journalism/content strategy, which was disseminated and shared almost exclusively on Facebook. In other words: Facebook’s organic Business Pages made it possible to achieve what would have otherwise been nearly impossible for a startup contractor with a budget of 40 hours per week and 400 dollars per month.
Then, again, ugliness came. Ads entered the newsfeed. Sponsored and boosted posts became available. And suddenly, the business landscape crumbled beneath our feet.
Organic visibility of Business Page posts to followers — people who had clicked “follow” indicating they wanted to receive updates — plummeted to below 10% overnight. Then to the single digits. Then, as we contractors and social media marketers groaned with disbelief, thinking that surely Facebook would hear our cries and shift the platform to be more friendly and accessible to businesses (give us a subscription service to use the platform! we said), it got infinitely worse. Visibility plummeted to below 1%. Within a brutally short span of time, businesses went from enjoying 50–70% visibility with their followers, to below 0.3%.
Suddenly, all those followers we’d built to our pages were meaningless. We had no choice but to pay to play.
This was devastating to businesses, yes, but I’d argue it was also devastating for small business culture and customer relationships at large. I can say from the experience of being on both ends of the Facebook page that customers loved having ready access to updates from their favorite businesses. The love and good vibes shared when customers could see small business page’s content was really something beautiful and unique. It fostered transparency and authenticity, and quality.
It was all obliterated by the new ad-centric nature of the platform.
Next, essentially the same thing happened with my own profile, as an author. By 2015, I had no choice by to shift my Facebook profile into business networking mode, as LinkedIn was far behind and Facebook was now full of contractors who’d entered during the gold rush of 2010. Also, everyone was on Facebook by now, even the late adopters, so if I wanted eyeballs on my writing, Facebook was pretty much it.
As with all the other waves, it worked for just long enough for me to get hooked. A few posts got decent views, and enough positive feedback for me to keep going. And for a hot second, my cusping opinions were running nearly parallel to the popular counterculture narrative. But after 2016, censorship entered in full force, and as my views became more anti-system, the visibility of my posts fell to pitiful levels. Sharing links became penalized, leaving me to either languish in obscurity or attempt to game the algorithm by posting the article link in comments. But it became increasingly clear that nothing was working.
Facebook had made it clear: it will show you what it wants to show you. Visibility is enjoyed by the highest bidder, and the most conforming voice.
Read the rest of this post at my place: the @creativeonion network.