Buyer Beware

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I’ve greatly enjoyed watching the petty controversies that erupted this week, controversies having to do with what can only loosely be described as buyer’s remorse: indignant iPad owners, a mysteriously banished Amazon customer, and a host of people calling foul on Facebook’s promoted posts. One of these is a legitimate and productive complaint, the others are nothing but a froth about the mouth.

To dispense with the first, very briefly: the iPad owners angry with Apple for releasing an updated version too quickly are demonstrating such grotesque entitlement that there’s simply nothing to discuss. This tantrum is pathetic and you are embarrassing yourselves.

Unperson

The Amazon thing shouldn’t strike anyone as a surprise — we’ve all seen Brazil. But the emails from Amazon are so ludicrous that if you had told me they were written as a parody of such things, I would have laughed and laughed. As it turned out, I laughed anyway, because the best parody isn’t intentional. At any rate, this kind of minor disaster is the kind with legs, the kind that catches consumers’ attention because it’s crazy but in then end causes them to doubt whether they really trust Amazon.

Once it hits the morning shows, and the office lunches, and the family reunions, that Amazon did this amazing thing (this time or the next), there will be two outcomes: Amazon will revise the policy, and people will move to take control of their data. Admittedly folks are not always quick to apprehend systematic abuses of their rights and privileges like EULAs, but the clear and present danger of having perhaps $50 worth of their money thrown down the memory hole will trigger the pecuniary instinct which is so reliable in America.

The ease with which users will soon be able to secure their purchases will make this possible. Want to make some money (or what is better than money: notoriety)? Create a web syncing app that quietly (perhaps wirelessly) tunnels into a Kindle and disables the DRM on the books, while somehow simultaneously snaking between licensing issues, leaving the user’s contract with Amazon intact.

It’s a chore right now, relatively speaking, to hack your Kindle or convert your library, and as long as that’s the case, convenience will trump principle (or what passes for it). But startups these days seem to be hell-bent on turning minor inconveniences into multi-million dollar businesses, so I’d say this particular chore will be automated to a sufficient degree within a year, if it isn’t already and I’m just not aware.

Even if that occurs, there’s still a valuable lesson to be learned for consumers: you own your devices, and you can keep your data, but the services you use — they belong to someone else, and as long as you use them, your device and your data might too. You have to be okay with a power-sharing agreement: you control the vertical, they control the horizontal. As long as everyone stays on their side of the fence, things will be okay.

You get what you pay for

Which bridges us nicely to the last micro-outrage: the ongoing troubles relating to Facebook’s promoted posts feature, or if you read the same article I did as it made the rounds, “the single most misguided thing a major corporation has ever deliberately done, bar none, in the entire history of American capitalism and the world.”

In case it’s not obvious, I think this one is froth — and the Observer piece it references, though for different reasons.

There’s a bit of napkin math in the post that puts the cost of promoting posts to reach all your fans at around $672,000 per year. I’m aware that this is more of a “for illustration” calculation, but let’s take just one of its premises seriously, that a blog might post ten things to Facebook every day of the week, and that these are expected to be seen by a good proportion of their followers.

Here then is another napkin calculation that should spring immediately to the mind of anyone attempting to comprehend this issue: if I follow just ten blogs or people posting at that rate, that’s a hundred items every day that would supposedly need to find their way into my Facebook news feed. Even if I checked Facebook three times a day, the content would surely overwhelm me. In fact, considering the volume of posts from 500 (or a thousand) friends, ten (or twenty, or fifty) blogs, and the usual ads and such, I would be very surprised if one out of those ten posts per day managed to find its way under my eye.

It’s public knowledge that Facebook carefully selects the posts you do see based on thousands upon thousands of interactions, comments, likes, stated preferences, and so on. Haven’t clicked through on a blog’s posts in a month? Chances of you seeing one of those ten per day posts just dropped, and for good reason. Did that post go up at 10AM, and you didn’t sign on until 2PM? Well, old news gets a demotion too. Is it about the elections, and you’ve already x’ed out a few political posts, or haven’t participated in election-oriented conversation (and you’d be a fool think Facebook doesn’t know)? Buried again. Alas, the life of a Facebook post is fleeting as a snowflake, and about as important!

What about Facebook’s clear damping of appearance rates of page posts just as it implements a pay-to-post system? Clearly they are related, no one can deny that (although attaching it to the IPO rather defies credibility). The Observer piece even calls it a “conflict of interest,” as if Facebook should be prohibited by regulators from changing how its posts propagate. But it’s so easy to say “Look! A smoking gun!” —Why not check for a second shooter?

In this case, that would be the multiplying numbers of pages and businesses on Facebook and the incredible volume of posts they produce. Combine those with a news feed that has not really increased in size (though counting temporal resolution and mobile penetration gives it some significant growth over the last few years) and you have a post population crisis. There just isn’t enough room for everyone.

And let us not forget that this is Facebook, a social network, which, despite having achieved platform status in other areas, is primarily thought of as a way for friends and acquaintances to share and communicate. If someone wanted to see every post from your blog, they would go to your blog and read it.

Anyhow, what is the reasonable response from Facebook? They can’t just increase the size of the newsfeed for technical reasons, and they can’t make items smaller or shorter really, and they can’t tell people not to post; besides, changing the user experience has almost without exception caused an outcry.

All they can do is change the ecosystem to balance things out by changing the weighting algorithm. But businesses may want to use their money to prioritize and promote certain things on the service, the way they have for most of recorded history. And if that promoted post still doesn’t meet the threshold for appearing on a particular user’s stream, bad luck. So — that’s what Facebook did.

It’s not a particularly good solution, but Facebook isn’t really the venue for this kind of thing, no matter what they or big brands say. My god, don’t these people realize they’re throwing a drop into the ocean and expecting everyone to count the ripples?

There is a problem here, admittedly. While the ocean doesn’t care whether the drop that hits it comes from you or from Nike, Nike definitely has more money than you do. That reflects the real world, sure, but it doesn’t reflect how a social network should work. So for the moment, the rich are at an advantage, though don’t forget that their reach too is suffering at the hands of Facebook’s cold and indifferent algorithm.

Promoting posts should be a part of the ecosystem, but the current method of intermingling ads, promoted posts, organic growth content, and stuff from your friends and family is amazingly crude. Facebook needs to radically overhaul their method of delivering news, and part of that will have to be at least a partial segregation of content into two streams (more becomes a challenge to usability) — roughly speaking, friends and likes. If they want to be a credible proliferation vector instead of a demonstration of chaos theory (that is to say, a business or a social network, and the choice is by no means easy), the current method of content delivery is untenable for more than another year or so.

There is, however, a level of expectation as far as Facebook promotion goes that is at least understandable. Metzger, of the $672,000, is on the losing end of what he presumed to be a sort of gentlemen’s agreement with Facebook. He’s spent years contributing and making the network a better and more diverse place. In return, Facebook has helped him grow his site, sending him traffic. Now Facebook is reneging on its part of the deal, he feels. But that assumes there was a deal to begin with.

I would submit that the volatility of every aspect of the Facebook platform gave ample indication that it was not a rock on which to build. Ore, perhaps, to mine, which Metzger and millions of others have done to great benefit. Facebook has been nothing but a good thing for them. Now it is perhaps less of a good thing, and it’s natural to be disappointed when that happens. But it seems to me less like he and others were thrown under the gravy train, than that they have ridden it to the end of the line.

Time to walk!