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Or: how we learned to stop worrying and love the egg

Science with Chronographs screenshot Finn McClean

Drastic, if not wildly satisfying

Some of us are old enough to remember what it was like being a fan of underground metal in the world before the internet. It is these memories that make me rejoice on a virtually daily basis over the existence of the social media networks. They have revolutionised music discovery and the ability to connect with like-minded souls the world over in ways that I would have gladly and publicly sacrificed my pets to obtain back in the early nineties.

But amazing and radical technological advances very quickly become absorbed into the stuff we simply take for granted. We now expect broadband and wi-fi in the same way we do mains electricity, central heating and over-priced, elaborate coffee-flavoured milkshakes.

This erosion of wonder, coupled with the internet’s astonishing capacity to generate hyperbole, leads people very quickly towards rash pronouncements – like the ‘end’ of Facebook.

2013 will almost certainly go down in internet history as the year the global love affair with Facebook properly started to sour. After 2012′s bungled stock market flotation, and the company’s infuriating belief that doing something is always better than doing nothing, even if they haven’t fully thought through the consequences, has critically damaged the belief that Facebook would be the answer to all our prayers.

Of course, Facebook could never have been that anyway, but the belief that the latest development will magically be all things to all men is a fallacy by which everyone is easily and repeatedly seduced. The relationship the public at large has with any given piece of new technology over time tends to follow broadly the same path every time. This path has been plotted with remarkable elegance in what is known as the Gartner Hype Cycle. This is the basic outline:

social media gartner hype cycle 2013

Makes sense, doesn’t it? E-commerce as a whole fits very nicely, with its birth and the incredible dotcom boom in the nineties, followed swiftly by the brutal bursting of that bubble around the millennium, before arriving in the present where Amazon deliveries are now more common than visits from the milkman. E-commerce is no longer an exciting buzzword; it is just a humdrum fact of life.

This cycle can equally be seen in the relationship the public has with individual websites. It should be pretty clear now that Facebook appears in the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ section, and a doom-laden article that was doing the rounds just before Christmas under the title ‘The End Of Organic Reach = The End Of Facebook?’ is an interesting case study.

The article is framed around a leaked sales deck. This in itself should raise a warning flag; there’s no such thing as a confidential sales deck. They are, by definition, public documents; you can’t use a document as a sales tool unless people see it. For reference, here it is.

Of course, we should not be at all surprised that Facebook marketeers recommend pages buying advertising – that is the entire reason for their existence – but the rationale they give us interesting.

Far from being the result of nefarious twiddling with the algorithms that place items on our newsfeeds, a goodly part of the problem is, oddly, Facebook’s success as a platform: too many people posting too much stuff means that the chances of people seeing any individual post decreases alarmingly.

What we are seeing, I believe, are the adolescent growing pains of social networking, and in order for it to mature and reach the far end of the hype cycle, we all need to look at how we use sites like Facebook.

So what can we do? I have a few suggestions, for page owners and regular users alike:

Cull your likes/kill your ‘friends’

As far as I can see, the biggest single problem is that we have all seen building a ‘network’ as being a purely acquisitional exercise; we have mistakenly allowed ourselves to believe that a good network is a big network.

When I look at user profiles, it astounds me just how many carry truly epic lists of friends and page likes. It is time for a reality check; you do not have 2,000 friends. You do not like 3,000 bands. All they are doing is getting in the way of the small proportion of those pages and people you actually give a shit about.

I have in the region of 250 Facebook friends, and have a similar number of pages liked. The only reason I can keep up with it all is because I have hidden people incapable of having a thought without it becoming a status update, and I am a hopeless addict when it comes to checking my feed. If you have ten times the traffic competing for space on your feed and you do want to spend some time asleep, you are going to miss stuff, no question.

The focus of Facebook users has to switch from quantity to quality. Whatever transient thrills may be gained from sending and accepting friend requests to everyone and anyone will be ultimately negated by having torrents of near perfect strangers hooting on your feed. I try to limit my friend list to people who I’ve had at least some interaction with. The majority of people’s general issues with Facebook have nothing to do with the functionality of the platform, but stem from being friends with a large array of idiots.

Facebook’s popularity brought “The Brands” in droves. People need to ask themselves if they really need to like the pages for Tesco, Starbucks, Walmart or whoever. They only exist to spam you, so why give them the satisfaction?

Sort your feed by ‘most recent’

Once you have the friends and pages down to a more manageable level, switch your feed from ‘top stories’ to ‘most recent’, turning off many of the cherry-picking algorithms in the process. Its a simple change, but one I’ve found to be powerfully effective.

Facebook feed sort

Check your feeds

At one end of the spectrum are those with enormous networks who can’t possibly keep up with everything that is posted or shared – while at the other, are those who barely look at Facebook from one week to the next.

Page owners have been getting very exercised about the extent of the reach of any individual post, but if people don’t log on, they will never see anything.

It seems to me that the average half-life of any individual post is about an hour. Past that, it just gets overwhelmed in the torrents of other stuff. Posts don’t get counted in those reach statistics unless they physically loads onto someone’s screen, and people rarely scroll deep into their feed. Once it is gone, it is gone.

There has been much spleen-venting about messages not getting through, for various reasons, but if you care about a band (or site such as this one), then it is as much your responsibility to find out what they are up to as it is theirs to tell you.

Stop obsessing over the stats

Facebook stats are like crack cocaine to page admins – but we have an odd relationship with them compared to the attitude we have to Facebook in general, in that we believe in them unconditionally.

It seems to be easier for admins to believe that Facebook is physically blocking posts from appearing on a proportion of feeds than it is to swallow the notion that it would be much more straightforward to simply manipulate these statistics to show as small a reach as possible. Or, that some people either simply aren’t logging on very often and others have so much competition for space in their news feed they can’t hope to keep up with it all.

These statistics are fed to us on a suite of very appealing spreadsheets and graphs – but we tend to forget that they are Facebook’s primary advertising tool. They inevitably cry “look at how low your reach is!” and, all too conveniently, the links are there for you to do something to boost those lovely figures and make those graphs curve pleasingly upwards.

Stop worrying about fake likes

I’m sure the first thing any page admin looks at when they go to their own page is the tally of total likes it has accumulated. We feel the mild rush of endorphin release when that number is higher than last time we checked and a pang of sadness if it is lower.

I’m sure we are all well aware of the fad for buying fake likes, which has led some bands to take some fairly dramatic action – but I remain less than convinced anything needs to be done, past page owners adapting their approach to their insights.

Indeed, just yesterday British five-piece Chronographs published an entertaining video (see below) about how and why they were going to ‘cull’ the lion’s share of the followers they had gained since this fake like palava began – and more importantly, a blog post detailing why they have ultimately decided not to.

Fake likes are just another symptom of the ‘gamefication’ of social networking. They are the equivalent of video game cheats that unlock all content or give you infinite lives or health after inputting a code. They give the purchaser the thrill of seeing a big number in the total likes box, without the inconvenience of anything approaching hard work.

But the truth is becoming ever clearer: if you are a page admin, the only person who cares how many likes your page has is you. If anything, the average metal fan is going to get a bigger kick out of there being a small number of likes on any given page than a large one. But either way, I think that sooner or later everyone will realise buying likes is pointless, and the problem will evaporate. I reckon that point will come this year.

Of course, one of the side-effects of the fake like fad are the allegations that, in order to make fake profiles look more plausible, the creators allegedly get them to ‘like’ similar pages to those that have paid for their services. We’re unlikely to ever find out who, if anyone, has being doing this, so the best thing to do is stop worrying about it.

Utilise multiple platforms

Remember that Facebook is not the only tool out there. At the moment, it has a certain critical mass that means it’s not going anywhere any time soon, but it has never, and will never, be a monopoly.

There will never be a single social network, so any band, label, venue, promoter or blog that wants to reach as many people as possible should probably have a presence on a number of them. Its not a straight either/or choice between Google+, Facebook, Twitter, a website, emailing list or YouTube channel, but of which combination is most suitable.

In the flurry of excitement over the social network sites, the more ‘traditional’ methods of the website and mailing list have been a bit forgotten – as they passed through that trough of disillusionment in the hype cycle – but they are being looked at again with fresh eyes.

It takes a little more effort for someone to commit to actively visiting your website, or sign up for a mailing list. It perhaps takes a little more effort on your part to maintain your contact with them, but you can rest assured you’ll think twice before posting that picture of your on-tour burger – and the ones who are listening will care more about what you say. They’re there in the first place, aren’t they?

Better than this is to use all of these in tandem. Got a new blog post? Post up the link, tweet about it, send a mail or learn smoke signals and light a fire. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket; like your hopes, they’ll most likely be put to the sword.

Accept the realities

Lets not mess about. Facebook is a business, not a charity. It is a service that all of us, as individuals, get to use for free. Whenever you get anything for free, you are not the customer, you are the product. You are a pair of eyes that Facebook’s actual customers can pay to put stuff in front of. If you have a brand you want to promote, then it has to be conceded that you are not going to be able to make full use of Facebook’s potential unless you pay for it.

If this seems unfair, then consider it in comparison to illegal downloading. An album is a band’s intellectual property and, quite rightly, they are upset when people obtain that property without paying for it. Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg’s intellectual property. Why should he open it all up for nothing?

tl;dr: our point

Ultimately, the point to be made here is one of perspective. Life is never quite so simple as the pantomime villain, cackling over his master plan whilst the poor denizens of storyland cower helpless and defenceless under the cosh of the man they unwittingly empowered. The story is easy to sensationalise, but Facebook owes us nothing, because it’s not there for the average every day user. They are not the customer; they are the product – a juicy resource to highly specialised resource to sell to their real clients: advertisers. Sure, there are added benefits and enticements to become said product, but at the end of the day that’s mostly what you are.

Does that leave a bad taste in your mouth? Why? It’s the same as everywhere. If you’re driving your car, you’re being advertised to. If you’re riding the tube, you’re being advertised to. It you watch the TV, or indeed go pretty much anywhere on the internet, you’re being advertised to. Hell; you’re being advertised to HERE. That’s the way the world works, because people want you to know about their products, and other people get paid to provide the means to do that. You can either let it get you down, or you can simply get on with it, and use Facebook as one tool in an arsenal of promotion, alongside flyering, playing shows and – most importantly of all – writing good stuff people actually want to hear. Or read, for that matter.

If you’re going to take anything away from these 2000-odd words, it’s that Facebook is not the be-all and end-all. It’s really not that important. Just be smart about it, okay?

Authored by Simon, with additional excerpts by Chris

Simon Chris