Saturday, May 19, 2012

Meet the enemy of the internet!


Not the government, not some anonymous hacking group, virus or terrorist network; the greatest threat to the internet as it exists today is from none other than its biggest site, Facebook!

Facebook likes you, but hates the internet!

Before I explain why or how, let me first give you a quick background about why Facebook is in a position to threaten the internet.

The back story:

Newspapers, radio and television are the three main sources of news for us till date. They are typically run by Governments or Businesses that have commercial and political interests to cater to. There is always a danger of the news being censored, biased or sensationalized and one can never really believe every word one reads or hears through these mediums. Such is their reputation that the villain in the 1997 James Bond movie ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ was a media baron who controlled and manipulated news to his advantage. That was the year before Google was born and the rest as we all know is history.

Once the flood gates of internet opened, mainstream media was no longer the only gatekeeper of news, it was a free world and anyone was free to post anything anywhere on the internet, my blog is an example of the same. Most of the online content was discovered because we searched for it, mainly via Google Search. Then came social networks and the concept of sharing came into prominence. Twitter and Facebook bring news straight into our News Feeds and we do not have to go anywhere else searching for news.

If it is not shared on Facebook it does not exist!

While Twitter still remains a niche network with a small percentage of active users who make all the noise, the dominance of Facebook has been so huge that almost everyone we know in real life is a member there, and quite active too. Apart from this we have celebrities and brands who keep screaming at us to LIKE their Pages on Facebook at the expense of their own official websites. Facebook Pages are far more attractive to them because that is where all the people are. In due course of time Facebook has become not just another website but...

Facebook is ‘The Internet’ for many!

This places Facebook in a position of great power. And like that famous dialogue from the Spiderman movie “With great power comes great responsibility”, we expect Facebook to act with maturity as people depend on it to bring them the news. Instead, it is slowly turning out to be a very smart villain and with the IPO money, things can get really bad. Hence the focus of my post is on Facebook, on how it treats ‘The Internet’ as its arch enemy, and why we should be concerned about it. When I say ‘The Internet’ I mean the internet that exists outside the walls of Facebook. With respect to Twitter, I already called it a BITCH once; it is now time for Facebook to face the heat. Here it goes...

So what is the problem?

Isn’t it nice to use Facebook to access content from all across the web, shared by our friends and pages that we like, all in one News Feed? Why should we be bothered about the rest of the internet?

Here is why we should be...

Facebook has been slammed for its privacy concerns but the bigger issue with it is the exact opposite of it.

Facebook hides more stuff than it shows!

At any given time, the News Feed shows only a small percentage of all content that is shared by our friends and Pages that we like. If we try and change the settings to show Most Recent posts, we might find few more updates, but still, a huge percentage of updates are hidden from us. That also means, whenever we post status updates, they reach only a tiny percentage of our friends. Facebook themselves have said that the reach is around 12% to 16% of our total friends. Beat that, more than 84% of our friends don’t even see what we are sharing or talking about even when we are online at the same time! Now you know the real reason why you are not getting enough likes and comments on your posts these days.

Isn't this a violation of our fundamental right to speech? Shouldn’t we be deciding whose updates we need to see in our news feeds and shouldn’t our voice be heard by our friends? Here is what Facebook has to say...

Noisy News Feed:

Reason given by Facebook is that they do that to control noise in the News Feed. Too many updates can inundate the users feed, so Facebook devised an ultra sophisticated mechanism that reads our minds (It always asks “What's on your mind”, so it knows) and shows us what it thinks is appropriate and relevant to us. Oh ya, how nice!!! A machine deciding what we have to see and not see.

Good riddance freedom of speech, welcome to censorship ‘Facebook’ style!

This is worse than what our James Bond movie villain did; at least he was a human being!

Facebook provides a lot of controls in the form of lists and subscribe options to manage the feed and these are usually beyond the understanding of the average user on Facebook and get totally confusing beyond a point even for power users. Also Facebook conveniently avoids the question of why there is or there should be so much noise in our News Feeds in the first place, considering the fact that very few of our friends or pages actually post updates on a daily basis. Let’s dig a little deeper to understand more.

Facebook has very weird notions of what needs to appear in our news feed! What our friends or pages that we like are saying to us via status updates can be compromised on behalf of showing us photographs of strangers where our friends are tagged. It makes no sense whatsoever why we should be seeing stuff from people we have nothing to do with. This does not stop with tagging, if a friend of ours comments on a Public photograph of a stranger, that photo shows up in our news feed and so on. Why? Why? Why should we be party to this voyeurism?

Twitter nailed this right, where its Timeline shows only stuff that a user explicitly shares or re-shares with his or her followers. Nothing else comes into the timeline. To show all other secondary activities like favourites (similar to likes in Facebook), who followed whom, etc. Twitter has a separate tab from where one can view those updates and not be shoved in the face with junk like Facebook does with its News Feed.

Essentially what Facebook is doing is giving us a sophisticated solution to a problem that it has deliberately created and which it can solve in a matter of seconds by simply separating the activities into different tabs which it used to do few years back, not anymore. But why is Facebook doing all this? Before we come to that, it is important to understand a few more issues that plague Facebook.

Psychological Problems:

There are deeper underlying psychological problems that Facebook is struggling with and what I am going to talk about next is something we all must be really concerned about.

There are two worlds that exist online, one within the walls of Facebook and one outside of Facebook. The one outside is dominated by Google which displays ads on almost every major website out there and takes a cut from the money that those ads generate. Google’s fortunes depend on the internet being open, as its search engine can’t enter inside the forbidden kingdom of Facebook where the bulk of the users are now having conversations. This has prompted Google to start its own social network to understand what people are talking about or interested in.

It shouldn’t have been so worried, truth is, every time someone shares a link to a website on Facebook, anyone who clicks the link would automatically fly out of the walls of Facebook into the open internet where Google is king.

The more people share links of websites on Facebook, the more Google benefits!

It was a winning proposition for Google and Facebook had to curb this menace somehow. Like how some restaurants have signs saying “Outside food not allowed” Facebook dislikes people bringing content which resides elsewhere on the internet and encourages people to consume content that is directly uploaded to or created on Facebook. The favourites being photographs and simple status updates, and the villains being, any links to outside websites.

One might ask, how does Facebook control this aspect?  Every website today has a Facebook LIKE button on it for people to share content back to Facebook. There must be something wrong in my assessment, right? Wrong, here is the actual truth...

LIKE vs SHARE!

Couple of years back, Facebook used to provide a SHARE button for websites. It had some time back discontinued the usage of the SHARE button in favour of the LIKE /RECOMMEND button. Whichever sites still use the SHARE button are using an old code, including my site. Here is the official documentation from Facebook regarding discontinuing the SHARE button - Click Here.

While SHARE is a neutral word and people tend to share easily, LIKE is a very subjective term which we don’t tend to use easily, same applies to even RECOMMEND. Also the way the Facebook algorithms work, a SHARE story which gets into Facebook drives more traffic back to the original website as compared to a LIKE story impression within Facebook. In the case of my blog the ratio is 95% traffic from SHARE story clicks as compared to a paltry 5% of traffic generated through the LIKE button. I won’t be surprised if this is the same trend across all sites that use both the buttons.

In case of sites that use only LIKE button in favour of the SHARE button, which is a majority of websites, they have just shot themselves in the foot!

Sounds unbelievable, right? Wait till you read the next part, it gets worse.

Kill the links!

The basic building block of Facebook is the status update box. Over the years it has gone through various iterations and in its current avatar it asks us “What's on your mind?” and very conveniently discards the option to share links through the status update box. There used to an icon earlier upon clicking which we could post urls of websites. Technically we can still do that by pasting the url directly in the status box, but by removing the icon Facebook has made the process less obvious and cumbersome. An average user who tries to share something will be perplexed.

How do I share links via the status update box???
*Scratches Head*

However, there is still an option to post links to videos. But that is not much of a problem for Facebook as the videos play within the News Feed and the user is not going outside the walls of Facebook, smart thinking we should say!

Mission accomplished, now what?

Kill the people who bring the links?

Don’t worry, Facebook is not going to kill you, it likes you very much and needs you as much as a poultry farm needs chicken. You are its Golden Goose, it is just that it hates you when you bring links from outside and takes pains to make sure your friends don’t see them much, remember the sophisticated News Feed filtering mechanism which I spoke about a little while back? Now it all makes sense.

However, there is another Frankenstein monster that Facebook has to deal with, the ubiquitous FACEBOOK PAGE. Yes, the same ones that everyone wants us to LIKE on Facebook. This is the problem with PAGES...

Kill the Frankenstein Monster!

All content that is shared on Facebook Pages is public by default, which means anyone on Facebook can see those updates; one does not even have to LIKE the page. A normal users updates can be seen only when one logs into Facebook, but a Page’s updates can be seen even when one is not logged into Facebook. This is fantastic fodder for Google!

OH MY GOD!!! HOW DID FACEBOOK ALLOW THIS? 

In its eagerness to get brands to start using Facebook, it allowed them a lot of liberties in the earlier days. There used to be a ‘Suggest to friends’ button on every page that drove fan counts on pages up north in an absolutely crazy manner. Within days you had pages gaining thousands of followers due to these recommendations. It was land grab time, and once Pages gained significant momentum and acceptance, Facebook pulled the plug. 


Boom! ‘Suggest to friends’ option disappeared. Earlier, it was compulsory for people to LIKE a page before they could comment on a status update from the page which helped drive fan count. BOOM! That option vanished; one could post comments even without liking a page. Pages could earlier send updates directly to all its fans inboxes on Facebook. Boom! That option vanishes; you can no longer send updates.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Due to all these changes and more, new fan counts fall to an alarming level. It gets difficult for pages to even maintain engagement with existing users, thanks to the hi-tech censoring of posts, especially those with links.

But Facebook was not complaining. Free lunch time was over, it was time these Pages started paying money to Facebook to acquire more fans by placing ads on Facebook. Why just to acquire new fans, even to reach existing fans Facebook wants Pages to pay money. Blasphemy! Here is the proof – check update. Why just Pages, it even wants normal users to pay money to reach more of their own friends – check link. Blasphemy overload!

This is the tweet I posted the day I realized this was going to happen:

One thing is clear from the above; brands that genuinely spend money on advertising to acquire new fans for their pages have been massively short changed by Facebook. Consider this case; a brand spends $10 Million in acquiring X number of fans over a period of time. Now Facebook tells the brand it will show the updates to only 16% of all its fans, BOOOOM!!!! The value of X is now reduced by 84%; that means $8.4 Million of the brands investment is down the drain and they have to pay Facebook again to reach the remaining 84%. This is mind-blowingly mind numbing. Maybe now it makes sense as to why couple of days back General Motors decided to stop all advertising on Facebook. Many thought GM had fallen behind the wheel of change but I think it could see through the fast one that Facebook was pulling on them. Yet, not many seem to be noticing or complaining about this issue.

How the hell does Facebook manage to escape?

Simple, Facebook uses magic.

A magician distracts the audience by making them focus on one thing while slyly hiding something in his sleeves. Facebook does the same.

It constantly introduces new features and options with great fan fare while it silently removes few critical features. The entire Boom Boom series that I explained above happened during the time Facebook introduced the new page layout many months ago, and then again when it introduced timelines, and new insights for pages, friend lists, etc, etc; the list is endless. Facebook has mastered the art of deception. For example it has provided space for Pages to have beautiful cover photos but does not allow any text or website address to be mentioned in it; why? There is no logical reasoning for it, it is nothing but Paranoia.

End of story, phew! No, there is more. Facebook hasn’t destroyed all its demons. Which brings us to the thing that Facebook is more scared off than any of the above – THE MOBILE PHONE

The Immobile Network!

It is no secret that the world is going mobile at an astonishing pace, thanks to Steve Jobs vision, and Facebook has not monetized its mobile apps yet. All the money it makes is from display ads on Facebook for the desktop. Facebook knows that if the mobile app gets popular, even more people would start using it and that would hit them financially, atleast till the time they have a proper strategy in place. They do have a strategy but what do they do in the meanwhile...

Facebook makes its mobile application as crappy and unusable as possible!

No, it is not a joke; it is a common grouse for everyone who tries to access Facebook on their mobiles, it is very slow to load and damn irritating to use. My suspicion is Facebook wants it to remain that way until their next plan is put in place. The plan to monetize status updates.

I had mentioned the idea of monetizing status updates just a little while ago. The story reaches a logical conclusion now. First hide your status updates, suck your fan base, force brands to pay to acquire new fans, and then force them to change their marketing strategy from display advertising to selling their status updates to reach more of their own fans on the desktop as well as the mobile version of Facebook.  That sure sounds like a winning combination and it takes me more than 3000 words to reach to this point in my post. Everything ties up now.

Photo Finish!

Yet, there is one thing Facebook really wants to improve on its mobile as well as the desktop, photographs. That is because images appeal more easily to our senses than the written word. Images don’t need a language and have the potential to go viral without much effort, so much so that nowadays even famous quotes reach us as images on Facebook.  Facebook is currently infested with images as they seem to be the only things working best in terms of going viral and best part, no one goes outside Facebook and yes, you can tag your friends shamelessly. No wonder, even a site like Mashable whose links are the most shared on Twitter has to resort to posting images along with its status updates since the last few days. Their links when shared directly were not driving much traffic to their site; you don’t need to know rocket science to come to this conclusion.  

Facebook loves images!

This obsession with images also explains the urgency with which Facebook lapped up Instagram for 1 Billion Dollars. There is a lot to gain from images,doesn't matter if the users are set on a path of reverse evolution where we start behaving like cave men who conveyed emotions through drawings on walls, we now do the same on the Facebook wall aided by our cell phone cameras.

In Conclusion!

In the past I had written a lot about how amazing Facebook is but all the things that I mentioned above have been eating me since a long time. Facebook works best as an online directory of all the wonderful people that I know from my real life as well as many new people who I met online. But, off late, I have been living with the feeling that I am being cheated in a relationship.

Facebook is not a company that got built in Silicon Valley; it is a collaborative effort of you, me and 900 Million plus other people all across the world who contributed to its growth, one status update at a time. The whole of the internet is getting sucked into Facebook and it is time Facebook starts behaving more responsibly and shuns the paranoia it is gripped with about things outside Facebook.

I hope the funds from the IPO will bring about some positive changes to its attitude of commercializing every aspect in myriad ways or maybe it could get worse. If that happens, it won’t take much time for the bubble to burst; competition is just a click away.  

Special Note!

Thanks my friend for reading till the end of this post, this is my longest. If you agree with what I say, I know you will share this post on Facebook and see with surprise that no one seems to notice it; it will afterall be a link that will vanish in the noise of the news feed.

If you don’t agree with me, then prove me wrong, share this link and make it go viral, that will be a slap on my face. And I would be the happiest person to be proven wrong.

So what are you waiting for? Share, Like, or do whatever you can and see if anything happens. I am waiting to see the results myself.

Cheers!!!

Kartik Dayanand Boddapati