Facebook Broken on Purpose: Why Getting It Wrong Pays More Than Getting It Right

Many of us managing Facebook fan pages have noticed something strange over the last year: how our reach has gotten increasingly ineffective.

How the messages we post seem to get fewer clicks, how each message is seen by only a fraction of our total “fans.”

It’s no conspiracy. Facebook acknowledged it as recently as last week: messages now reach, on average, just 15 percent of an account’s fans. In a wonderful coincidence, Facebook has rolled out a solution for this problem: Pay them for better access.

As their advertising head, Gokul Rajaram, explained, if you want to speak to the other 80 to 85 percent of people who signed up to hear from you, “sponsoring posts is important.”

In other words, through “Sponsored Stories,” brands, agencies and artists are now charged to reach their own fans—the whole reason for having a page—because those pages have suddenly stopped working.

This is a clear conflict of interest. The worse the platform performs, the more advertisers need to use Sponsored Stories. In a way, it means that Facebook is broken, on purpose, in order to extract more money from users. In the case of Sponsored Stories, it has meant raking in nearly $1M a day.

It doesn’t end with Facebook, either. Being broken pays off, so social media is often deliberately broken. In fact, nearly every major social network, site or app has greedily pursued this logic.

Why are there so many fake Twitter accounts—accounts that can be bought in increments of 1,000 for less than $20? Because during their hot growth phases, social networks had to post continuous user growth. They had to show how many accounts were being created. And with billions of dollars at stake, they weren’t exactly motivated to eliminate fakes.

Why can’t you browse Craigslist listings on Google Maps? Well, for some reason, Craig appears to be personally reluctant to innovate. Which would be fine, except he won’t allow anyone else to innovate, either, because it threatens his company’s lucrative position as the lazy but dominant listings network.

Earlier this year, he went as far as to sue the much-loved service PadMapper for rolling out the kind of features Craigslist should have had years ago, thus keeping housing search broken and all of us dependent on Craig.

When users are not paying for services up front, the publisher must extract a “cost” somewhere. Online, this cost is our attention, our time. We pay for social media with pieces of our lives—whether it’s because a blog baits us into reading something or a game tricks us into sticking around long after we should have left—and these bits of life are sold to advertisers, literally, for pennies.

Right now, the purveyors of these tactics are riding high. Like Facebook, they admit that this is the game and say, in effect, what of it? Pay us or leave.

Their reply is typical, proving how casually and openly publishers acknowledge breaking things on purpose.

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