Each week in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.
What does it mean to be a Christian in an age of a drastically shifting economic landscape? How do you obey the age-old command to love your neighbor as yourself when the Internet is wholly restructuring the economic relationship that you have with your neighbor?
There has been much written—by incurable optimists, I think—about how the Internet can drum up a great deal of business for small business owners; and while this may be true, it also presents unique challenges. The main one can be summed up as follows: no one buys anything anymore. Certainly not if it’s available for free somewhere on the Internet—and almost everything is. Witness, for instance, what has happened to the journalism industry: people have dropped magazine and newspaper subscriptions as they’ve found they can get news online; news sources have responded by moving their publications to the Web; after doing so, they’ve found they have only two choices: charge nothing (and make no money), or go behind a paywall and watch readers migrate to another comparable site (and make no money).
The only real option for a lot of producers on the Internet is to give nearly everything away to attract people, and then, once they have an audience, ask around and see if anyone’s willing to shell out some cash for a “premium” product. Pandora Radio, everyone’s favorite streaming music service, is an example of this: they give their main streaming service away, and then ask people to pay for better sound quality with no ads.
Only four percent of their users take them up on that offer.
Then there’s the matter of advertising. It’s no longer a matter of just paying for 30 seconds on local TV; you’re now expected to “engage” your customers (or potential customers) 24/7 on social media—because if you don’t, you can bet your competitors will. And, by the way, “engage” means “act like their friend.” If they get the feeling you’re actually trying to sell them something, they’ll start ignoring you.
But hey, good thing social media sites like Twitter and Facebook give anyone a free platform from which to scream things at the world. You may be forever haunted by the need for 24/7 advertising, but at least you don’t have to pay for it…
Never mind. Facebook has lately been making changes to their algorithms that drastically reduce the reach of “fan pages”—the pages businesses use to connect with customers. Previously a post from a fan page would reach seven or eight percent of its fans; now it’s down to one or two. These days, if you’re the social media guru for McDonald’s or IBM or your little brother’s screamo band that totally almost got a gig once, the posts you’re making are reaching the newsfeed of almost no one who has “liked” your page—unless, of course, you pay to “promote” it.
And if you’re a fan page owner—or maybe even a fan—you might object to this. You might be crying “Bait-and-switch!” or “How dare they!” “Doing unto others,” though, requires that we strive to look at things from the perspectives of the people we’re dealing with. Facebook might seem like an 800-pound gorilla, but in reality they’re in the exact same predicament as every other Internet business. If they charge for their basic service, users will simply go elsewhere—Twitter, Google+, or some other social network. And this is actually even worse for them than it is for a news site, since their users are the only reason that anyone ever logs into the site in the first place. If you didn’t already have friends to connect with on Facebook, you’d stop coming, regardless of whether the service was free or not.
At the same time, though, they have to make money like any other business—which means charging advertisers and keeping users on the site so that they actually see ads. The way to keep users on the site, of course, is to show them things they actually want to see—and their research has found that what people say they want to see and what they actually want to see are two very different things. Most people, when asked, will report that they’d like to see everything, in order, posted by all their friends and fan pages; Facebook’s studies, however, have found that when people are in fact given just that, they stay on the site for shorter periods and “like” and comment on fewer posts.
In other words, most of what your friends and fan pages post is actually really, really boring, and if you actually see it all, you get bored and leave. (If you doubt this, try giving your Twitter feed another look. Twitter actually does show you everything in order—and who’s ever spent more than a few minutes glancing through Twitter?)
It’s easy to get mad at Facebook; they’ve successfully sold themselves as everyone’s main portal to what’s happening online, and when someone promises the world, it’s only natural to expect it. But making everyone on the entire Internet happy all the time is really hard.
In this case, loving our neighbor means remembering that businesses, in a sense, are our neighbors. Facebook may seem like a faceless corporation—and when they do bother to trot out a face, it’s usually a smug billionaire—but it’s important to remember that they actually employ more than 6,000 people, most of whom depend on a weekly paycheck to get by. For them, Facebook’s profitability really matters.
Similarly, the people who own and operate the businesses behind your fan pages are neighbors as well. And while it might not be possible to support all of them financially, it’s probably worth it to pay their fan pages a visit every once in a while to see if you missed anything.
As for those of you who are fan page operators, you can love your neighbor by not spamming them with boring ads. Try to post something interesting every once in a while. Here’s a good place to get some ideas.