An experiment by a tech writer has brought into focus a feature on Facebook that may have its users leaving the site in protest. After the New York Times's Nick Bilton noticed the Likes on his Facebook subscription page were dropping, despite an increase in followers, he tried a little experiment, paying $7 for sponsored advertising of his posts. The result? A 1,000% increase in Likes and Shares.
Bilton says he feels duped, and wonders whether this policy—he received a message that "5.2 times as many people had seen my post because I had paid the company to show it to them"—is part of Facebook's drive to monetize its services. In recent months, it has introduced, as well as sponsored posts, a Gifts service, and a strange pay-to-message system that may or may not be a way of filtering spam, just as much as it may or may not be a new stream of revenue.
Facebook says that it is still working on the algorithm that controls what people see in their news feeds. "We don't have an incentive to reduce the distribution that you send to your followers so that we can show you more ads," Will Cathcart, the firm's news feed product manager, told Bilton. While feedback on posts from accounts with 10,000-plus subscribers is up 34%, there has been a 2% drop in interaction on the news feed, it said in a statement.
Hunter Walk, however, the YouTube head of product who last month left to start up a VC firm alongside Satya Patel, wonders whether the phenomenon is down to something else. It could be, he writes, either Facebook's improved spam control, or just a secondary effect of advertising models. Maybe, he continues, it's to do with there being more content for people to have to deal with in their news posts while still the same amount of time to devote to social media. Or, he says, it is just the impact of mobile on social media.
What do you think the fluctuation is down to? Is it a cynical ploy by Facebook to bring in more revenue, or can it simply be explained away as people losing interest in Likes and Shares because of, say, a lack of time? And would you pay to have your posts sponsored? Should a company that relies on its users' data to exist really then charge additionally for that data?
Update: In a post on its blog titled "Fact Check," Facebook denies that it suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts. "News Feed shows the most relevant stories from your friends, people you follow and Pages you are connected to. In fact, the News Feed algorithm is separate from the advertising algorithm in that we don't replace the most engaging posts in News Feed with sponsored ones," the company claims. You can read the whole explanation here.