“Instead of building walls, we can help build bridges”
Said Zuckerberg at the opening of Facebook’s annual F8 Developer Conference earlier this year. Indeed empowering people to share and connect has long since been at the literal core of the company’s mission. The frictionless, egalitarian, empowering vessel that is Facebook has come to symbolise the increased online connectivity of our modern world. Anyone can connect at any time, in either a public or a private setting, and it’s free at the price. But power corrupts. And ‘free’ is not a word that has been so heavily associated with Facebook in recent years. Certainly not in the corporate world. Even in terms of consumer use there seems to be a growing dichotomy between what Mark Zuckerberg says and what he actually does.
The corporate issue
Facebook is made up of user generated content. That’s how it works. At its heart, it’s basically just an old skool magazine model that uses engaging content to attract advertising to its pages. Brands are increasingly being restricted to a ‘pay to play’ model in which organic reach is being stifled and a ticket price must be paid. Arguably, this works, because it maintains the editorial integrity of its peer to peer networking roots and ensures that timelines do not get swamped by ‘promoted tweets’.
But when you trace the evolution of Facebook for brands it used to be so much more: organic reach, HTML-codeable pages and direct brand to consumer conversations have now given way to restricted visibility, traditional advertising, and ultimately a ticket turnstile that brands must pass through in order to reach the audience contained within the Facebook walls. Not very egalitarian. And surely a system more in favour of the medium to large sized corporations that have always been able to leverage huge advertising budgets to get their voices heard, as opposed to the local ‘pop-up’ pages that the site once professed to champion.
The consumer issue
Of course, you can argue the toss for organic branding vs. advertised branding either way. Whether you think native is a great way of encouraging brands to be more transparent and creative, or an unnecessary intrusion that serves to decrease the value of editorial integrity, is an interesting debate.
Facebook’s walled exclusivity begins to look slightly more sinister however, when you examine the impact it has on consumer activity. Consider this for a moment. Before Facebook you had Google. An endless, open, serendipitous, browser-fuelled entry point into the online world. One search gave way to another, one site led to the next, discovery was determined a lot more by relevance and interest than who’s advertising wallet carried the most weight.
Not so with Facebook: you now log into a walled App – or Apps with the ascension of Messenger – and share your online life with the people around you within those walls. YouTube links are shrivelled and belittled, aesthetically reduced beneath the native videos that are uploaded to Facebook directly. Links from external sites are now carried through within the in-App Facebook browser, ensuring you never have to leave the Facebook walls. Facebook Instant Articles have endeavoured to bring the media within these boundaries, serving content directly and removing the need for consumers to visit the publisher site. We had a situation earlier this year where Facebook’s political neutrality was called into question, causing it to make changes to the way it administered its trending topics service.
It is perhaps a fitting image to find Mark Zuckerberg building a physical wall around the unspoilt gardens of his Hawaii home – where the dream of freedom once contained within the natural landscape is now being cordoned off by its owner, ‘Mine!’ Whether the Facebook CEO is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons is an interpretation that is more open to debate. One thing is for sure though, Mark Zuckerberg is building walled gardens, and these days the frictionless sharing that was once the Facebook dream is beginning to look more and more enclosed.
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