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How Facebook Screwed The Libertarian Republic, Non-Profits And Small Publishers Everywhere

Posted by Austin Petersen • 16 Dec 2013

Regular readers of The Libertarian Republic are aware of the mission of our site, to inform and educate people about the news from a perspective of economic freedom and personal liberty. But that mission took one big dramatic step backward this month when Facebook updated its algorithm in order to restrict the amount of “organic reach” that brands can achieve in order to contact their fan base.

Ignite Social Media reported:

Facebook once said that brand posts reach approximately 16% of their fans.  That number is no longer achievable for many brands, and our analysis shows that roughly 2.5% is now more likely for standard posts on large pages. So, a year ago a brand could expect to reach 16 out of 100 fans and now that brand is lucky if they get 3 out of 100.  Chilling news for brand pages who have invested resources to “build” a large following of fans.

Ignite analyzed 689 posts from 21 brand pages. They found that the number of people who saw posts from pages that they liked declined by 44% on average, “with some pages seeing declines as high as 88%.”

An enormous drop in traffic has throttled the ability for people who have subscribed to our updates to actually be able to view them. Facebook is doing this allegedly in order to get publishers and brands to start paying to increase the amount of people who can see posts.

Bait and switch? 

In the past, Facebook encouraged brands to pay in order to help get more “likes” for their pages. The Libertarian Republic was no different. In order to increase our fans, this site spent substantial resources in attracting an ideologically diverse audience, working for months to build a fan base in order to spread ideas that many mainstream media outlets won’t touch. Now with the algorithm changes, small publishers are being dramatically restricted in their ability to contact the fan base that they worked to build. So we were told at first to pay to build our fan base, now we’re being told to pay to contact them.

Business Insider recently wrote about the changes that it has “screwed an entire industry.” In a December 2nd blog post, Facebook wrote:

“Why are we doing this? Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme. Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile. This means that high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.”

Imagine if you had a newsletter and you paid $1 to add an email to that list. You would build a budget based on that calculation and estimate how much you could earn from your publication based on that amount. Now imagine if the service you used for email told you that not only do you have to pay $1 to add an email, you have to pay $1 to contact that person as well. Your budget has just gone out the window, and you no longer can make money running your newsletter.

But apparently not all publishers are having this problem. “Quality” publishers are going to get a free pass and maintain their ability to reach their audiences. But what if they think you’re “Low Quality?”

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All publishers are equal, but some are more equal than others? 

Facebook admits that not all websites will be restricted in their ability to contact their fan base. Apparently Facebook trusts some sites to report the news, but not others. Who do they trust?

“According to data from the BuzzFeed Network — a collection of sites including more than 200 publishers such as The Huffington Post, TMZ, The Onion, and Slate, with more than 300 million users each month — traffic from Facebook referrals to partner network sites are up 69% from August to October of this year. The spike began in August, when the network received more than 100 million referrals for the first time. In October, the network received 151 million referrals for the month.”

Changes to the algorithm began in December, but it apparently hasn’t affected sites like Buzzfeed. They currently enjoy 1,140,656 likes with 929,002 talking about this. Their engagement has stayed the same. In contrast, The Libertarian Republic in November had a similarly high engagement rate, but in December it went off a cliff.

We have apparently been deemed “low quality.”

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In an interview with Facebook News Feed Manager Lars Backstrom, Peter Kafka of AllThingsD.com gets some insight into how Facebook shows preferential treatment to certain news websites over others.

Peter Kafka: Your post says that you want to promote some kinds of content and demote other kinds of content. But I don’t really understand what you want to push up and down, and why.

Lars Backstrom: We don’t really think about it that much in terms of promoting and demoting certain kinds of content. The way we think about it is that we’re doing a better job of identifying value.

In the past, there were a lot of things that all fell into one bucket, and we would treat them all the same, even though they clearly weren’t. If you see a funny meme photo in your feed — sure, you get some value from that. But if you compare that to reading 1,000 words on AllThingsD, you would presumably get more value from that experience than the first one. And, in the past, we were treating them as the same.

But if I like them both, aren’t they the same? From a Facebook perspective, shouldn’t the things that people like be the things that people like?

I’m not saying that one doesn’t have value. And we’re not trying to impose our will and view on the world. But we went and asked people which of those things they get more value from. We’ve run surveys, and asked people to rate stories and things.

And they’ll say, “The cat photo was great, and I had a good chuckle, but of those two, the second one enriched my life more, and I got more value out of it.”

It’s not us trying to be more proscriptive. We’re trying to align our definition of value with that of our users.

If you ask people if they eat well and exercise a lot, they might say they do. But their real habits could be different. On Facebook, shouldn’t people’s actions explain what they find valuable?

You make a good point, which is that the surveys are not necessarily the truth. But it’s just as naive to treat every single click as having the same value.

Are you paying attention to the source of the content? Or is it solely the type of content?

Right now, it’s mostly oriented around the source. As we refine our approaches, we’ll start distinguishing more and more between different types of content. But, for right now, when we think about how we identify “high quality,” it’s mostly at the source level.

So something that comes from publisher X, you might consider high quality, and if it comes from publisher Y, it’s low quality?

Yes.

They have altered the deal. Pray they do not alter it any further. 

Historic Photos such as these are now considered "low quality" memes.

Historic Photos such as these are now considered “low quality” memes.

A key strategy for publishers on Facebook has been to share photos and memes in order to increase their “talking about” statistic on Facebook. The old theory was that photos and memes were shared faster, and received more likes than just articles. People on Facebook showed their preferences for these pictures by their actions, “liking” and “sharing” these memes. But Facebook thinks these are “low quality” and started issuing a survey to random users in order to generate a system that favors articles over memes.

That makes sense if a site is sharing low quality meme pics over and over, just to boost their “like” count. But how can Facebook distinguish between low quality memes, and high quality historic photos, such as the ones readers will regularly find at The Libertarian Republic? The simple fact is that they can’t.

But it’s not just for-profit businesses with an activist bent like The Libertarian Republic that are suffering from these changes. Popular non-profit educational resources such as the Learn Liberty Facebook page have suffered a dramatic drop in organic reach as well.

And it’s not just some libertarian pages that have been squashed, it’s nearly all of them.

Editor in Chief of Thoughts on Liberty Gina Luttrell just completed a major site upgrade in order to serve news to her fan base in order to deal with her growing traffic. Now today, Luttrell realized that the changes have dramatically limited her ability to grow her site. As a small publisher, this is devastating news.

A Free Market Means Bad Business Models Drive Customers Elsewhere

In our eyes this is a bad change for Facebook for the following reasons:

#1. It is somewhat deceptive to dramatically alter business practices in such a way as to alter the output for products that previously performed a certain function. Consider the outrage when Makers Mark announced that it would be lowering the alcohol content of its fine bourbon. An enormous backlash caused the manufacturer to change their plans to water down their product. Customers didn’t want to buy something that was less than what they believed they were paying for and the company wisely reversed course.

#2. The Libertarian Republic and other publishers bring new users to the Facebook community. TLR has brought incredible value to Facebook by creating high quality, exclusive content that is featured solely on their site. We frequently post highly engaging content that is not just “Buzzfeed” style posts which feature things like 25 repeating pictures of Carrot Top.

We are giving people an incentive to sign up for Facebook in order to receive our exclusive content. Now we have a much lower incentive to create any original content for the site because we are essentially being forced to pay to create content for them which we can’t really derive much benefit from anymore.

#3. The new changes give publishers and non-profits a hard reality check about the strategy of putting too many eggs in one basket. This new business practice will force brands to take their fan bases to Facebook’s competitors. TLR has already begun growing a Google+ page in order to not be so dependent on a site that is less than transparent about how your content can be viewed by people who have opted in.

We are also going to be expanding our Twitter presence due to the fact that Twitter does not restrict anyone’s ability to see content. If you subscribed to an account and they post something, you will see it 100% of the time. That’s how it should be in theory and Facebook’s changes have opened many people’s eyes about the fact they aren’t getting the content they’re asking for.

And therein lies the rub. People who “liked” The Libertarian Republic thought they would get access to our updates, and now they won’t unless we commit to paying for something we’ve already paid for. So it’s not really an opt-in system and it doesn’t favor user experience, despite what Facebook is arguing. They believe, like many people in government, that they know what it is that people want, and can distinguish between “high quality” and “low quality” content, rather than allow the market to decide based on the actions of the participants.

US-POLITICS-OBAMAWe aren’t conspiracy theorists at TLR, but it’s difficult not to question what Facebook would deem as a “high quality” publisher when the political agendas of the leadership at the website are resolutely Pro-Obama.

It’s also very hard not to be discouraged when one realizes that a co-founder of Facebook is the owner of The New Republic, one of our direct competitors (who we are dominating in terms of likes). Still, it is their website and as committed capitalists we must defend ultimately the right of Facebook to do business as they please.

But that doesn’t mean we have to “like” it.

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  • tomByrer

    “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” ~ bunch of people

  • Howard Hart

    Do you understand the concept of an economy? You’ve been given access for free and now you’re crying that they “screwed” you because they’ve put some limits in place to bolster revenue in a market where it is woefully scarce?

    Strap on a pair and join the real world. You pretend to have a philosophy of how man should live and you can’t grasp the basic concepts of how an economy works – pathetic.

  • AdamTwelv

    Please let this shake out – and let’s not pretend there aren’t PLENTY of Libertarians in Silicon Valley. If this is a legit attempt to curb Lolcats infestation, then true, original “content” such as yours is actually being recognized as valuable.

    However, if aggregators like Buzzfeed continue to get preferential treatment, then net 2.0 is dead anyway. Part of the problem with open source is that content is difficult to trace to it’s original source – thus the viral memes.

    If they are really not involved in a simple money grab, or just trying to cut down on the political talk (another possibility, it is a huge customer complaint, I’m sure) – then they will figure it out and we all will profit from our original work rather than some large sites profiting from the stolen and untraceable work of others.

    I gotta run, I hear there is a video of a cute puppy stuck in a bowl on the internet.

  • chthompson

    Everybody should abandon FaCIAebook aka Spybook. It’s stupid and it’s mostly just a tool for the regime to spy on us.

  • BusinessViking

    Maybe I’m brain-dead, but the dailypaul used to be FREE, and now you have to pay to sign up. Lots of sites do that. Free until they gain a big following – then make ‘em pay. (though: all of them pay, not some)

    But I realize facebook isn’t positioning their change like that. They’re openly admitting that they’re censoring content:

    Using the analogy above: Some users deemed “Worthy” by facebook would still get free access while the “Unworthy” would have to pay.

    And to the commenter down below who tried to argue this is just a business trying to find revenue — that doesn’t make sense. Making the SMALLEST websites have to PAY is NOT a good strategy for revenue — they are the ones with the LEAST amount of capital.

    Who has more DOLLARS to spend on advertising? A site with 100 million+ monthly users, or one with 10,000 ? This isn’t about REVENUE — It’s about CENSORSHIP.

    Good.

    Now there’s an opportunity for a BETTER IDEA.

  • ♞ Divest ♞

    And to think that I was going to start using Facebook to advertise. :)

  • Patrick Kniesler

    I suppose they had to find some way to monetize hosting our conversations and posts. Advertisement at the sponsor level must not have been enough. I think even Facebook is still discovering the cost of running Facebook. I’n not surprised, and I am actually quite impressed at how brilliant this is – even if it is sudden and poorly explained to the people around it. Almost like they are ashamed to have to make money.

    • http://www.thelibertarianrepublic.com/ Austin Petersen

      They monetized it when we paid to build the audience. It took quite a bit of resources to build the page. Think about this. If you were being sold on a product, and you paid for it, then it didn’t work as advertised, would you be peeved?

      • Patrick Kniesler

        Yes, it is definitely a bait and switch. Facebook is too complex and is going to start running video ads in the news feeds Thursday. I don’t like where it is going. If we separate it will be like the old days, where you simply collect blogs and check them morning noon and night from bookmarks.

  • http://alexbeynenson.wordpress.com/ Alex Beynenson

    Facebook doesn’t owe anyone anything more than what it agreed to. It’s a private company, free to change how it conducts business. You are free to write articles complaining about it, or to take your advertising budget elsewhere.

    • http://www.thelibertarianrepublic.com/ Austin Petersen

      And isn’t it funny how the article says exactly that? You could have almost cut and pasted the last two sentences from the article. Clever girl.

      • http://alexbeynenson.wordpress.com/ Alex Beynenson

        Granted, but at the very least, it’s misleading composition. 99% of the article bashes Facebook for supposedly dishonest behavior only with a minor quip at the end about how they are free to do so.

        • http://www.thelibertarianrepublic.com/ Austin Petersen

          That’s right. It’s a fantastic way of finding out who has reading comprehension, and who flies off the handle before making a full assessment of the facts.

          • http://alexbeynenson.wordpress.com/ Alex Beynenson

            People will either agree or disagree with you. I disagree with the spirit of your article with full comprehension and no flying off the handle. Only you know what you were trying to accomplish by bashing a company who has been providing you with a (mostly free) platform to spread your website. It’s OK to admit that you did it out of anger.

    • http://www.DonnaEdmunds.com/ Donna InSussex

      I believe that’s what Austin said at the end of his article. And whilst I won’t disagree with you, I will say that Facebook are pretty darned opaque about letting you know what you’re getting for your advertising budget. Long term, that’s not a savvy business strategy.

      I also run a news website and will be looking at other platforms from which to advertise it having read this article.

    • Mario Lawrence

      Did someone say Facebook owed anyone anything?

      You imply a limit of options where none exist.
      TLR is free to write articles about it, organize protests against it, AND (not “or”) take their advertising budget elsewhere.
      No need to leave amicably. :)

  • http://www.tiffanymadison.com/ Tiffany Madison

    Great coverage. There should be an organized protest against this change.