2013 Retrospective: The Demise Of Facebook

And now we’ve reached the top spot. The big enchilada. My most viewed post. And, of course it’s about Facebook. Part of last year’s end of year countdown, this post was all about the algorithmic changes that Facebook was undergoing and attempted to explore what that meant for government agencies looking to utilize social media to disseminate critical information.

The coolest part of this post isn’t the post itself. And it doesn’t have anything to do with me (sadly). It has to do with what’s happened with social media since I wrote this post. The so-called “river of news” that we’ve come to understand as social media is dying. Blogs are on the way out, Facebook’s home feed has almost no bearing on who posted what and when, Snapchat is the hot, new commodity and there’s not feed there. Social media no longer lives by the rule of post it and they will come. Instead it’s all about building a community now. It’s all about ranking and engagement and friendships. I’ve said this for years, but now we’re really seeing it. People will no longer read what you have to say just because you’re the government. And next year, things will change even more.

The third lesson we’ve learned this year is a new one, and one I wouldn’t have guessed six months ago. One that many folks, when writing their crisis communications plans six months ago wouldn’t have guessed. It was the demise of Facebook as a crisis messaging tool. Yep, demise, I said it.

(That doesn’t mean Facebook is useless in a crisis–in fact, there are situations and topics where Facebook is still the very best method of communications. But today I’m talking about using it as a crisis messaging service, which is important because Facebook is written into so many crisis plans to be used in just that way.)

It took a number of years, a lifetime in social media, for Facebook to start offering useful Pages for non-person entities like businesses and non-profits to stake a claim on the social network. And it took a few more years for the General Services Administration to negotiate Terms of Service with the social networking giant, signaling that it was “okay” for government to put a toe into the virtual world. A couple of years, and one IPO, later, we have government agency Pages littering the Facebook landscape. (And given how underutilized some of them are, littered is the correct word.)

And then, this fall, something changed. An algorithm, to be specific. (For folks who said that geeks would never rule the world…)

The specific algorithm is the EdgeRank one, which determines how many people see a particular Page’s posts. The idea is that the more interaction one’s Page has, the more likely it will be that Page’s posts will be seen by it’s followers. You used to post something and about forty percent of your followers would see it in their feed. Today, the number is between ten and fifteen percent. (So when you proudly tell your executive that your agency has just reached 100 followers, no more than fifteen people are seeing your posts organically.) Coincidentally, this change happened around the same time that Facebook started offering Pages the ability to increase the EdgeRank of their posts, for a fee.

And people revolted.

Of course, just days later, Superstorm Sandy hit and government agencies all over the Mid-Atlantic used their new social media plans to post to Facebook, only to see the effects blunted by this new algorithm change.

For years, social media acolytes have pitched using social media as a way to get direct, opt-in only, agency-to-person messaging utilizing other people’s distribution networks (read: free), around the media filter. And for the most part, that pitch has been successful (because it was right).

But now? I can’t promise that anymore. I can only promise that some tiny percentage of the people who have signed up to see what you’re posting will see it. Any fantasies you had about posting a boil water advisory on your Page and having 10,000 people in your county see and share it are gone.

The proliferation of messaging platforms has also diluted the pool.  Snapchat, Kik Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram to name a few, are all competing for attention from the same pool of people all trying to be hyper connected socially. How long can the pioneers stay current with new social media trends and a flippant and unloyal userbase that is willing to adopt the next social media trend.

And besides all that, just listening to some of the money-making ideas coming out of Menlo Park, one has to wonder how much longer government will tolerate plying along. From the Instagram Terms of Service debacle to allowing access to people’s Messenger for a dollar per spam message, well, one has to wonder how much longer we can consider it a prime messaging network.