Facebook pulled the best practical joke of the internet age: the company convinced countless celebrities, bands, and “brands” that its service was the best way to reach people with eyeballs and money. Maybe it is! But now that companies have taken the bait, Facebook is holding the whole operation hostage.
Update: To be perfectly clear, none of this will affect the average Facebook user’s ability to freely use Facebook—only entities that use Facebook as a promotional tool.
A source professionally familiar with Facebook’s marketing strategy, who requested to remain anonymous, tells Valleywag that the social network is “in the process of” slashing “organic page reach” down to 1 or 2 percent. This would affect “all brands”—meaning an advertising giant likeNike, which has spent a great deal of internet effort collecting over 16 million Facebook likes, would only be able to affect of around a 160,000 of them when it pushes out a post. Companies like Gawker, too, rely on gratis Facebook propagation for a huge amount of their audience. Companies on Facebook will have to pay or be pointless.
That 160,000 still sounds like a lot of people, sure. But how about my favorite restaurant here in New York, Pies ‘n’ Thighs, which has only 3,281 likes—most likely locals who actually care about updates from a nearby restaurant? They would reach only a few dozen customers. A smaller business might only reach one. This also assumes the people “reached” bother to even look at the post.
The alternative is of course to pay for more attention. If you want an audience beyond a measly one or two percent, you’ll have to pay money—perhaps a lot of money, if you’re a big business.
The change was described to me by a source as a cataclysm for businesses, something Facebook is calling the extreme throttling a “strategy pivot” they’re slowly telling brands one by one so as not to start a panic. It might be too late. Reports of “crashing” engagement numbers have been floating around for a little while, but this is the first time we’ve heard it drift out of Facebook proper.
Two things: fuck “brands,” really, those constructed succubi meant to look and feel familiar and friendly but really just advertise and annoy us. If Nike isn’t able to bombard millions of people with a picture of a shoe without shelling out some money, no one ought to care besides Nike. But smaller places and people will see their ability to self-promote basically zeroed out. The fans they’ve attracted will be pushed behind a curtain, only to be pulled back now and then when cash is on hand. If you’ve spent years trying to build up a following for yourself, this is a bummer—maybe a career-altering bummer.
On the other hand, Facebook is a business. It’s easy to forget. It’s not a charity, or a non-profit, or an art project. So much of the tech industry is predicated on the myth-belief that income is optional, that as long as you make something pretty and well-liked, success will somehow arrive out of the ether. That’s a sham. Facebook has to make money like the Nikes of the world—the same companies that are now going to raise hell when the free firehose runs dry.
Facebook has not returned a request for comment.