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The problem with Facebook is the actual model

April 9, 2018

The hubbub around Facebook is the power. It has eaten the lunch of major content creators and build a business model wherein consumers create content, and then their information, gleamed from that content, is sold to marketers. It is like the NY Times, in that it sell eyeballs, but unlike the New York Times, it doesn’t pay for content, or vet content. It uses an algorithm to spread content that his highly engaging.

It spreads click bait.

Unlike the New York Times, where the ads are clearly different from the text, the ads on Facebook aren’t different. Colgate has a Facebook page that is used to promote the school. It is basically an ad for the school, organically filling people’s news feeds.

Before the second wave of the Internet, the so-called Web 2.0, we also understand a contract.

Mass media places like the NY Times and NBC created content that was under written by ads.

As in the middle of a magazine feature would be a full page ad on running shoes, or an airline, or some other thing. After the opening of Thursday night TV, a flight of 30-second ads would interrupt the program.

The ads were targeted to the kind of reader, or watcher.

Advertising was, and still is an underwriter for content. The bigger the crowd the content amassed, the more brands paid to pitch the assembled mass. We called that ratings or readership. When it a show gets big ratings, it charges more for an ad. Think Super Bowl. The model that worked for ages was content subsidized by the ads.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat – they are blurring the lines of the contract. Advertising still is an underwriter for the content – Facebook is free. The difference is we’re the content creators, and we work for free. We create the content that is then used to sell us ads. We’re both content creator and ad consumer.

The contract with the consumer. 

It used to be simple. You got over the air TV and Radio for free, and the cost was ads. Newspapers sold an issue for pennies, but they were full of ads. A magazine subscription was $20 a year, and the magazine was full of ads.

But things have shifted. Weirdly. Consider this blog. We have no contract: I give this out for free, and expect nothing. Readers get content at no cost. This blog is wrecking paid models where sites charge for ideas. So this blog might actually be part of the problem we’re experiencing with digital.

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook pages, these all lack that content contract.

What is the contract on a social platform?

We don’t know. We sort of understand that Facebook will sell us a toaster or a new pair of shoes, but we’re pretty sure we don’t want it to sell us an ideology or a candidate. Even though we never really balked at a 30-second spot for  candidate own TV or radio.

The difference, and there is a difference, is we don’t understand the ads on Facebook as well. There isn’t a moment where the show stops and the ad clearly starts. Ads on Facebook are like the content.

Consider the Facebook page as exhibit A for the so-called new marketing. A post from a brand is, essentially, an ad. A post from a politician, is an ad. The Twitter feed of POTUS is an ad for his brand. Brands (and universities, and politicians) aren’t paying to be on the platform, but they are getting something out of it..

Like the website before it, which also had no contract with the consumer, social media needs to ask: what’s in it for the consumer in a way that wasn’t required of traditional advertising?

The answer for Facebook is utility. I get to stay in contact with family and friends that would otherwise have left my  orbit. The question is this: is the utility of a platform worth the contract?

Unlike the NY Times, which only informs, Facebook actually unites. It sounds trite, but at its best, Facebook can contact people to their communities.

So ask, what’s in it for me? Because the answer isn’t that clear. The backlash from the public, and questions by congress to Zuckerberg show that we don’t understand the contract we made with social platforms.

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