Thursday 12 December 2019

Facebook switch will win few friends in local firms

'Lured by your tantalising promise of winning new customers, some of them have spent a great deal of time acquainting themselves with Facebook.' Stock photo: Reuters
'Lured by your tantalising promise of winning new customers, some of them have spent a great deal of time acquainting themselves with Facebook.' Stock photo: Reuters

John McGee

Dear Facebook. We need to talk. When you threw open your platform all those years ago, the world had never seen anything like it and in fairness to you, the world became a much smaller place.

Although it took me a while to pluck up the courage to post my first holiday snap, I could see huge potential in what you were trying to achieve.

Not only could I see how my old school pals from Monaghan were faring out in far-flung places like Australia and South Africa, I could also see who was playing in my local pub on a Saturday night, catch up on the misfortunes of the local GAA team and be kept in the loop when the local restaurant, butcher or shop was running a special.

In fact, nearly every shop, pub and restaurant in the village where I live has a presence on your platform and it became a great way for them and indeed other brands, to let people know what was going on. Lured by your tantalising promise of winning new customers, some of them have spent a great deal of time acquainting themselves with Facebook.

Although some of them are still posting silly cat videos (though not the butcher - that would be too weird), others have taken to it like ducks to water. Although having a content marketing strategy is not high on their agenda, they do their best.

I also have to confess that when I couldn't be bothered leaving the house to buy a newspaper at the weekend, my Facebook stream would keep me up to speed with more news than I could mentally consume. Sometimes it was convenient to read through my favourite news brands from within the cosy confines of your walled garden.

As there was a price to pay, I've put up with your often poorly targeted ads from ecommerce sites trying to flog me gaudy shirts that only somebody in a Bollywood movie would wear.

I've put up with those bait-and-switch scammers who have lured me off to sites that sell knock-off Ralph Lauren jackets. (Yes, I know you are doing your best to purge them from your platform.). And I've almost forgiven you for unwittingly allowing fake news to be disseminated on your site and taking money from those pesky Russians who were hell-bent on derailing Hilary's tilt at the White House last year. Just don't let it happen again.

I am a tad concerned after I read recently that two former very senior executives with Facebook - Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya - have been highly critical of you. Chamath says you are "ripping apart the social fabric of how society works" and the short-term, "dopamine-driven feedback loops" that you appear to have created are not good for us. Sean even says that you are exploiting "a vulnerability in human psychology" by creating a "social-validation feedback loop". I'm not a cyber-psychologist but, hey, they may be on to something.

But what is troubling me today is that you've gone and changed everything again and I'm mad as hell. Have you seen Michael Douglas in the movie Falling Down? You get the picture, right?

I fully get your desire to pare back the platform to try and make it more about meaningful social interactions between friends and families. It's a risky strategy and it may pay off.

But I have to admit that I am very suspicious about your motives when it comes to de-prioritising the Facebook pages of my local pub, shop and news brands and my ability, never mind desire, to see what is going on. I find it mildly ironic that even the organic grocer in the village is about to see his organic presence diluted considerably once your proposed changes are implemented.

When I was talking to my local publican the other day about how his organic Facebook reach was going to decline, he was livid. Not only did he not know what I was talking about but he said that if he had to pay to play on your platform with advertising, you can forget it.

And I suspect there's thousands of businesses around the country who are in the same boat.

While I know that with all ad-supported businesses, the advertisers are the customers and us mere mortals are the product, not every trader in my little village gets that - and maybe they never will.

Of course, huge amounts of money will still continue to flow into your coffers in the form of advertising revenue from big and small brands and you have to be commended for developing a great business model that now has over seven million advertisers. But with the planned changes to your algorithms, I fear that you may have taken one step too far this time.

Anybody I talk to says that the cost of advertising on your platform is going to go through the roof. It's already pretty damned expensive and with click-through rates of less than 1pc, you have your work cut out.

But, more worryingly, is that you have reached such scale that you may be losing touch with the fundamentals that were so instrumental in your growth.

At a time when people are thinking about regulation, your impact on society and your duopolistic position in the marketplace, you need to tread carefully.

Sunday Indo Business

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