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Facebook tries to turn attention into a commodity

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5 October 2012

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Two big developments at Facebook this week. One, an algorithm change to Edgerank has lead to reports that the reach Facebook Pages are getting is dropping (also see). And two, Facebook has launched a test where users can now make their status updates more visible by paying, called Promoted Posts.

Part of the promise of the digital media revolution was that we all could get heard and have our say. We could all be publishers.

When Facebook launched, it took this promise out of the murky corners of the internet, which was for most the only place where it applied. Up to that point you could set up a blog, but it was in reality difficult to set up, and even more so, to promote it. Thanks to Facebook it was suddenly easy to make our thoughts accessible to good friends and family that were readily available.

But Facebook had a fundamental problem.

It has a mutual friending mechanism, unlike Twitter where you can follow and not be followed back. As our networks got bigger and more messages were posted and as we discovered that some old long lost friends were actually dead boring, or worse, Facebook had to face a classic problem. The problem of human attention being finite.

Facebook naturally wanted to keep surfacing the best content to us.

Then it developed Edgerank. Edgerank is an algorhytm that decided whether it will show a piece of content to you based on a number of criteria, like how much you liked the person who shared the content’s stuff in the past.

So it happened that fewer and fewer of Facebook updates made it to a wide audience – Edgerank was supposed to reward meritocracy and the production of compelling content.

The two announcements of late shows that Facebook might be making it even harder for us to get through to our audience, and quite possibly this is being done in order to sell more ads. Why advertise on Facebook if you are doing quite well in reaching your peeps anyway?

Questions arise

What will happen if 5 people you follow simultaneously promote their updates? And will ads by ordinary people make it even harder for brands to get seen?

There is a limit to how much Facebook could push this strategy. Could they hide all content and only make content available if a person has paid, effectively turning Facebook into a paid-for platform? We doubt that.

What happens to relationships between people in social networks when money intrudes in such a direct and base way? Meritocracy is something most people can buy into and many Facebook users were probably not even aware that Edgerank existed. Now they will be. And many won’t be happy.

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