Facebook Follies (or the Dangers of Investing in Someone Else's Platform)


A few weeks ago, I wrote a comprehensive, sometime scathing critique of Facebook and its shortcomings (it's worth a read, though long, and builds the basis for this current post). Despite that review, I was still positive on Facebook vs. MySpace and could live with its deficiencies while they sorted things out. I have now changed my mind. Facebook just cost me access to 639 fans/leads/potential customers, and I am partly to blame for trusting someone else to manage my business.

 




Photo via Flickr by B I R D

As I pointed out in my previous post, I use Facebook in the same way I use MySpace: a bit of personal communication but mostly artist-to-audience communication in the form of announcements, videos, calendar, etc. Because Facebook does not let you send messages to all or groups of your friends (I have 944 of them) and because I wanted to give people an explicit choice to receive such messages, I created a Facebook Group. I called it "GLOBAL Fans of Comedian, Author & Vigilante Pundit, Baratunde Thurston." The "GLOBAL" was because the first fbook group I created was limited to the Harvard network, and Facebook's staff said they could not change it once set that way. It's also because I will be taking over the world shortly.

Over time, this group grew in size to nearly match the size of my email list. In fact, with the growth of these social networks, I noticed fewer and fewer people signing up for the email list at all. I used the group mostly to send my NewsPhlash email messages to group members, three or four times per month at most. It helped get people out to shows, announce cool accomplishments and get feedback from people on ideas. The Facebook group complemented my other "channels" if you will, which include


  • My regular email list

  • MySpace friends

  • Blog/Podcast and associated RSS feeds

  • Upcoming calendar and Twitter

  • Friendster decommissioned summer 1996 due to lameness


My routine had been that every time I wrote up a NewsPhlash I would send it out via email, blog post, MySpace bulletin, MySpace blog, Twitter announcement and the Facebook group. As more people joined Facebook or began to use it more (especially when they opened it beyond students), I got a higher response to my posts from Facebook users than from email or MySpace. I have always been annoyed at this needlessly, inefficient cross-posting arrangement, but other social media types I respect insisted that you have to do it. It's one of the reasons I prefer blip.tv to manage my podcasts cause they do a lot of the cross-posting for you, especially to MySpace, and anything that keeps me from logging into that design nightmare is a good thing.

On August 16th, a big part of Facebook died to me. I tried to send out my latest NewsPhlash to the group. It included announcements of an upcoming NPR appearance I wanted folks to check out, plus links to a recent column and a photo of me with Barack Obama. Exciting ish! Sadly, Facebook did not care how exciting it was. My group message went only to me. I have tried over 50 times since then to send out a group message to no avail. I got into software testing mode and tried from five browsers -- three on my Mac and two under Windows. Nothing.

I wrote Facebook, describing the problem. One day later, August 17, they wrote back:
We are aware of the problem that you described and hope to resolve it as soon as possible. Sorry for any inconvenience. Let me know if you have any further questions.

Between then and today, I had tried repeatedly testing the message feature. Nothing. So today I got ahold of a an anonymous source at Facebook. This person was kind enough to talk to me about some of what's going on. Out of respect for this person, I'm gonna keep the exchange anonymous and merely summarize many of the points we discussed
Point 1. Facebook is nervous about groups using the messaging system for SPAM and has some "limits" set up.

SPAM? That's why I created the group in the first place -- to give people an explicit opt-in to my messages. Unlike actual SPAM, people can leave my group at any time. The message source is transparent. If people feel they are being spammed by their groups, they should leave. I wrote back explaining my frustration and thanking the person for taking the time to be in touch with me. Always thank people for their time yall, even if they disappoint you! I basically said I had been building up my group over months only to have it broken. The response was quite revealing. Again, summarizing some points.
Point 2. People sign up for Facebook assuming we're like MySpace, and we're not. We're a very different kind of service.

Ok, tell that to your investors and the media and your users and the public and Microsoft and Yahoo who thought they were trying to buy something a lot like MySpace for $1 billion or more. If people sign up for your service expecting something, either provide it or make it clear to those people that they won't find what they're looking for. Don't get folks all invested then pull the rug out and say, "we don't support that." As for being a "very different" kind of service, I'm not so sure. Different, yes. "Very" different? Meh. More summary:
Point 3. Facebook is focused on "connecting real people with the people they know." Groups were designed for this, but users re-purposed them for things like promotion. We don't want to do the MySpace thing in the area of promotion. We think we can do it better.

I can partially respect that. Facebook does get that users will build whatever they want and can with your tools but is not comfortable with that. Again, there is this point of not being MySpace, and I don't fully get it. Maybe they want less noise than the MySpace system which overwhelms me with event invites and grotesque HTML comments all over my profile. Man, it's good that Facebook's pleasant environment doesn't overwhelm me with meaningless communication like zombie bites or friend comparisons.

Again, I gotta give it up to this person for a very professional and empathetic tone. I actually got screamed on by another Facebook engineer who was upset at how I tagged a video and, rather than discuss it with me, bitched about me behind my back to a friend. Good to know there are mature, thoughtful people at the company. Sad to know that the company is being so rigid about how people use a tool.

Through continued correspondence I discovered that Facebook says it sets a limit for group messaging. Based on my experience, this limit must be around 500 or 600 people, but perhaps it's a bit different for different users. This, of course, doesn't apply to sponsored groups like "Apple Students" with 400,000+ members, but Apple is paying for the privilege. Me? I'm not spending any money except on silly $1 gifts. All I'm doing is being an active node in the network and increasing its value by providing valuable, ad-monetizeable metadata about myself and my friends. All I'm doing is being Facebook, but what do I know?

This is all very troubling. I invested a lot into Facebook, but I've discovered, painfully, that Facebook doesn't value me nearly as much as I'd hoped. I took one of my most important assets, my relationship with my fans, and allowed Facebook to mediate a large portion of it. Sure, I still have my email list and blog subscribers and my pedophiliac MySpace friends, but the loss of access to my Facebook group will be felt. Facebook users are still largely college folks, and that's one of the few groups that will actually pay me to perform.

Meanwhile, I have to come up with a way to patch this hole. Unlike an email list, I cannot simply load my Facebook friends into another system as I would if I moved from Topica to Constant Contact. There is no Internet standard for a "Facebook user" like there is for an email address, and that's one fatal flaw in the system for anyone who plans to outlive Facebook.

At least Facebook and MySpace have not been my end-all, be-all web presence like some folks I know. This has served as a wake-up call for me and hopefully others. Build and own your online presence. I knew this when I registered baratunde.com way back in 1998 and began managing my own email. I got a bit lazier in recent years, but I'm glad I still have my Baratunde-controlled universe to fall back on. Too bad I can't message my Facebook group and tell them about it.

Epilogue - My Plan of Action

I cannot afford to wait for Facebook to fix my group messaging, and even if they fixed it sooner, I no longer trust the service with such valuable information. I will keep my Facebook account, but I have closed my Facebook group to new members (what's the point if I can't communicate with them?) and will be sending them individual Facebook messages asking them to follow me in some other, more open, portable, non-hostage-taking way. I'll be adding forums to my own site and encouraging people to follow me with RSS. This will take a lot of time, but it's worth it. Contracting out major parts of your business has a huge long term cost, though on paper it looks more economical. I think we've all learned this lesson.

It's sad, I had fun making people random officers in my group with such titles as "Dirty South Regional Enforcer of the Family Name" and "Awkward Turtle Whisperer." I had hoped to eventually make 50 people officers, but Facebook has an officer limit. Nice. More artificial limits on my creativity.

I wish it were as simple as saying, "see Baratunde, that's what you get for believing in Facebook," but it is not that simple. I didn't just "believe" in Facebook. This was not a faith-based decision. I used it because that's where the people are. I stopped using Friendster because the people left. The "Internet" has all sorts of more open tools I could use to do what I was doing with Facebook, but millions of people have chosen Facebook instead. It seemed foolish to ignore that. Will people show up just to see me without having their friends, photos and Zombie bites one glance away? Facebook has become to the Internet what RSS readers are to the blogosphere. As I mentioned in a comment on my previous Facebook post:
...no matter how open a system I build/take advantage of, it is worthless if no one is there to use it. I don’t use facebook for fun. I do it because the people I want to communicate with are there, and they are not willing to work with me right now to cobble together the equivalent of an open social network / event manager / messaging platform / internet application storefront / discussion board. Yes it is true that I could individually manage all those pieces, but I guarantee you, only a handful of the people I’m trying to reach would follow me.

I suppose it is time to find out.

You can follow Baratunde's musings, show schedule, videos and more at www.baratunde.com, and he promises not to hold you hostage.