What Facebook’s Changes to Algorithm Mean

The folks at Facebook want you to know flat out that the days of organic reach are dead. In a three-page brief entitled “Generating business results on Facebook,” the social media network encouraged marketers to consider fan acquisition as way to make their paid advertising more effective.
What does this mean for brands? Either they will pay for ads or drown the social network with content—maybe both. What fascinates me are the implications for the user experience. I think it’s reasonable to expect a downward spiral in customer satisfaction overall with Facebook. The ad delivery is already too in your face.
Also fascinating are the young digerati who are outsmarting Facebook’s algorithm. Pew Internet and American Life Project recently revealed that 58% of teens mask their messages using inside jokes or other obscure references. Older teens (62%) engage in these practices. Outsmarting the ad algorithm is an online behavior that Alice Marwick and Dana Boyd dub “social steganography” and they explain in their paper on teen privacy practices.
The hyper commercialization of social media networks was to be expected, I suppose. Still, there is a role for companies like Facebook and Google as world builders. It’s an idea best explained by Jonathan Harris in a Creative Morning talk. In the world according to Harris, there are two kinds of players on the Internet, “dealers and healers” (you will find the reference in the middle of the talk, but listen to the whole thing—it’s really good).

By slowly, but purposefully re-training it’s algorithm to favor content associated with paid sponsorhip, Facebook confirms its status as a “dealer.” While many people applaud Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In campaign to advance women, the maturing social network will need more ethos in its actual business practices to sustain equilibrium between brands and users. Bombardment and “pay-to-play” tactics will only tarnish Facebook for users and marketers alike.

Digital business practices and user expectations have not evolved in any predictable way. But my money is on the young digital natives who will set behavior norms that brands will do well to observe, regardless of any advice coming from Facebook. It’s true. The Internet is losing its edge as mass medium controlled by the people. But social media is nothing without its users and their self-generated content. So brands, networks and users share a stake in establishing norms that “heal” as much or more than “deal.”