It’s time to start paying attention to Facebook and Google and what they’re doing to shape our society.
As our readers are likely aware, your author publishes a website aimed at a market of Southern conservatives grossly underserved by the legacy media in terms of ideology and emphasis on several core issues. In Louisiana where we’re based, we are usually the only source of information about the excesses of wasteful and corrupt government and we’re quite often the only media operation calling attention to the conservative, or Republican, or even non-statist, perspective on current events.
And like lots of other conservative publications, we didn’t come about thanks to a large-scale capital raise or a decision made in a corporate boardroom. It was sweat equity which built The Hayride, just as sweat equity built so many other hundreds and thousands of sites small and large which combine to present such an effective — and growing — obstacle to the manipulation and domination of the national conversation by the legacy media.
But so far this year a chill wind has blown through the conservative blogosphere, a wind so cold and so fierce as to extinguish a number of very recognizable players. Right Wing News is gone, as is Rare, as is Truth Revolt.
They’re gone because they embraced an operating strategy that was actively killed by one of the internet’s dominant players. Those sites and many others had recognized a business model that had the potential to win — grow a following with social media of such a size that your content was bound to go viral multiple times per day, and then monetize that content through digital network advertising. Keep costs low enough and every post on your website becomes a revenue engine.
This worked, and money was made, and money was invested — particularly with Facebook, as to grow a following for one’s Facebook page was to create a distribution engine effective enough to challenge that of any legacy media operation.
And then Facebook proceeded to change its algorithms early this year. The business model it had created which democratized and opened up the media space to those with something to say and the talent to say it, though not necessarily possessing a corporate-backed vehicle from which to speak, suddenly crashed and killed the aforementioned websites.
I can speak to this myself. Facebook didn’t kill us with the algorithm change, though life isn’t as much fun as it used to be. Last year we routinely did 50,000-75,000 page views per day, and 85 percent of that traffic came via Facebook referrals. We had invested several thousand dollars last year growing our presence to around 18,000 Facebook followers — not an exceptional number by any means, but certainly a large increase over the 3,500 followers the year before. That investment, we expected, would pay off in site traffic and advertising revenue for years to come.
Well, this year — with the same or more volume of content and no discernible difference in quality (back home in Louisiana we’re more influential than ever before, happily), we’re fighting to hit 15,000 page views per day. And that 85 percent of our traffic coming from Facebook has fallen to 20 percent. And our post engagement on Facebook shows virtually no difference at 18,000 followers from what it used to be from one fifth the followers.
Thanks to those algorithms.
Luckily for us, we’re not solely dependent on network advertising revenue — something that has been the case with us since Google pulled our AdSense account in 2011 with no explanation given, much like that company recently chose to do in the case of Prager University and Stephen Crowder with its YouTube product — and therefore Facebook couldn’t kill us as they did so many others. We’ll survive, though 2018 won’t go down as our easiest year to get through.
But for us it’s been a time to reflect on just how much power Facebook and Google have over not just our business but our lives.
Facebook, after all, has come under fire for what’s probably the least objectionable of its business practices — namely, the fact that it captures data from its users and uses that data for its own purposes. If you didn’t know Mark Zuckerberg and his happy geek warriors were using your information to invade your privacy by marketing products to you from the last retail website you visited you were clearly not paying attention, and you definitely never gave it much thought when you published your entire life on your Facebook profile. You gave that privacy up willingly, and you certainly can’t complain if you don’t think the use made of your information suits your preferences.
What’s much more pernicious is that Facebook has become for many people the predominant source of information on current events, and what it’s doing with that power.
Among our 18,000 or so followers of the Hayride’s Facebook page are more than a few who have reached out to us with the complaint that despite having followed our page they no longer see our content on their news feeds. This is by no means a situation unique to my site — it’s happening across the web. Facebook says it’s because they’re now emphasizing their platform as a means for friends and family to interact, and that it’s only natural for some businesses to be negatively affected. And those businesses can boost their content by paying Facebook to get in front of more people.
Of course, if you’ve already invested in marketing your Facebook presence and growing it so as to use Facebook as a distribution engine they already have your money. Now they want to use that investment against you by denying you the return on investment you expected in the first place, and essentially extorting more. The numbers don’t work for most publishers, and that’s why so many are dropping out of business altogether.
Now, there are people who believe this is ideologically based. I can’t say. What I can say is the change in algorithms seems to most affect conservative publications because so many of them are small businesses rather than corporate organs. And Facebook damned well knew that when they made the algorithm change. Especially coming as it did in the wake of incessant hair-pulling over “Russian bots” and “fake news.”
What I can also say is I have been in the room in an office building in Austin, Texas where Facebook’s content curation team is, and if our readers could see the people who twist the dials and pull the levers you would not have much confidence in the level of perspective and wisdom at the controls of what’s in your news feed.
So it’s not a surprise that Facebook is appending a new “About This Article” feature which shows up on many links you see on your news feed — and in the case of Breitbart, for example, it’s a Wikipedia entry which pulls up that is replete with what can best be described as defamatory characterization of that site.
Google is worse. You’ve by now noticed the partisan imbalances at YouTube, and the disparate treatment increasingly showing up in its search engine — not to mention the infamous and downright horrifying James Damore incident. But what’s much scarier about Google is that company’s vertical integration. Google isn’t just a search engine and a video sharing website. It’s a browser. It makes phones and computers, too. And now it makes devices you are supposed to put in your home and talk to.
Those devices listen and record, by the way. If you put a Google Home in your house you are gullible to the point of insanity.
Consider this a warning, and a mere scratching of the surface. We’ll have much more to say on this issue in future columns.
But suffice it to say that we’re well past the point where we start discussing Google as an old-fashioned trust which can be dealt a similar fate to Ma Bell and Standard Oil. And we’re also past the point where the market can start looking for The Next Big Thing in terms of social media platforms to migrate to. At one point everybody was on MySpace, after all; there is no reason why some other app can’t do to Zuckerberg what Walmart did to J.C. Penney.
Photo: DonkeyHotey/Creative Commons