Would you pay for Facebook fame?


“When I made Facebook two years ago, my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better,” Mark Zuckerburg wrote in a 2006 blog post.

Five years later, we click through company ads, requests to “like” a page to get a discount, and options to gain “subscribers”—a noticeable change from the simple design most of us encountered around 2006. This October, Facebook engineer Abhishek Doshi announced that the social media site will test a service where users can pay $7 to have their posts come up first on their friends’ newsfeeds. The charge will apply on a per-post basis.

Last May, Facebook debuted a different service, “Promoted Posts”, where pages run by both users and organizations could pay to get their posts moved up on their fans’, and friends of fans’, newsfeeds. But the service is being made available to regular users for $7 a post. Facebook cites baby and wedding photos as examples of posts that users can promote with the new service. It’s a great marketing tool for organizations seeking to attract more attention, but it’s surprising that their latest test project would target everyday users.

To Rhonda McEwen, an assistant CCIT professor, the new service reflects the emergence of Facebook’s marketing- and money-driven mission. “It’s a bit of a social narrative that Facebook is more social,” McEwen said. “In reality, Facebook is marketing.”

But if Facebook is an unclear mix between personal relationships and marketing opportunities, where does it leave Zuckerburg’s mission to “make the world more open”—as he reiterated in a 2012 letter to investors? More importantly, how will Facebook’s marketing tactics affect people who do use the website to “understand what’s going on in their world a little better”?

In a campus survey of 20 students, all of them said they would not use Promoted Posts. Some had issues with the price of $7 per post, while others said they used Facebook for personal connections and had no need for it as advertising.

“Why would I pay money for people to see my posts when they don’t even want to see them in the first place?” said Steve Sothiratnam, a third-year biology specialist. “Out of all the Facebook friends I have, I really only interact with about 12 of them, and those 12 will already know what I post.”

In the context of social connection, Sothiratnam felt that paying to have your posts appear higher in the newsfeed rankings is attention-seeking. “If your self-worth is defined by how many likes you have, that’s pretty sad,” he said.

Another student, Catherine Le, shared Sothiratnam’s view. Le, a life sciences major, said the service would be “obnoxious” for personal posts. To political science major Janelle Saldanha, the option to impose your updates on a newsfeed represents a manipulation of news values.

“You’re basically paying to be deemed more important,” Saldanha said. “Can you imagine people paying to be noticed or ignored on a news station?”

Since many Facebook users treat their newsfeed as their most important—or, in some cases, only—source of news, Saldanha’s analogy seems apt. It also brings up another question: would Promoted Posts skew users’ ideas of what’s newsworthy among their friends’ posts? Before we address that question, an introduction to Facebook’s current algorithm is called for. Only four of the 20 students said they knew about or understood Facebook’s current method for selecting which stories show up in their newsfeeds and with what priority.

Facebook uses a program called EdgeRank to do just that. The program has been described as “the most important algorithm in marketing” by marketing guru and podcaster Kelvin Newman.

An algorithm is a basically formula that takes an input and calculates a result. In a post called “The ultimate guide to the Facebook EdgeRank algorithm”, Newman provides suggestions for marketers on how to use EdgeRank to get their posts noticed. The input in this case, as he explains, is every Facebook interaction—like a status update, an uploaded photo, or a like. Each of these is an “edge”. The algorithm ranks each edge according to three criteria: affinity, weight, and recency (also known as time decay).

If you visit someone’s profile often or like a large number of their posts, the algorithm determines that you have a high affinity with them; as a result, their posts will appear more frequently in your newsfeed. If you post something with media content, such as a photo, video, or link, that post carries more weight, and so is more likely to take precedence over other posts. And if your post is old, then it’s less likely to take precedence, because it does not fulfill the criterion of recency. Newman suggests that marketers take advantage of the algorithm and plan ahead.

His advice is intended to help businesses be seen, but the fact that there’s a strategy also implies that things aren’t as transparent as we might like to think they are. Newman points out that “the newsfeed isn’t really a feed of news”.

A visitor to econsultancy.com, where Newman’s article was published, commented, “EdgeRank is another way of making the popular kids or brands more visible on Facebook. It’s all about who has the edge.” After EdgeRank and the tools already in place for organizations to market themselves, the Promoted Posts service just seems like it will make it harder to sort through what you read to decide what’s really newsworthy.

For McEwen, Facebook’s increasing status as a way to promote oneself, even for profit, is part of Facebook’s natural progression. “Facebook did put  [out] the idea of ‘social’ at first,” McEwen explained. “But now that we’re all there, it is their goal to monetize.” McEwen compared Facebook’s gradual changes with Highway 407, which provides faster commutes at an additional cost.

But McEwen also believes that Promoted Posts may not be the best way to increase profit, considering the social behaviour of Facebook users. “The service would actually annoy your friends,” she said. “So you would actually be sabotaging your network rather than building it.” McEwen added that people might pay for more useful services, like storing documents or importing contacts to their phones. “Facebook needs to look at how to make their users want to pay for something,” she explained.

Still, although all 20 students answered “no” in the UTM poll, an interactive poll held by The Wall Street Journal did see some people saying “yes”. About 8,000 people voted “no”, and some 300 voted “yes”, making the service proposal seem a little less like a bad idea. Obviously, there’s room for speculation. Many of the 300 may want to use Promoted Posts to promote services or products rather than just personal details.

For now, Promoted Posts is only a test service, and it’s only available in select countries to users with fewer than 5,000 friends. Facebook will also be testing different price points for the service, so perhaps the students who said “no” will reconsider.

On that note, most students say they dislike the idea of paying money to promote their personal posts, but third-year biology specialist Suleiman Khan admitted otherwise. “I think I might do it,” Khan confesses. “For a penny.”