Like a lot of people, 2017 was a call to action for me. I couldn’t just stand by and watch our imperiled democracy limp through the year without doing something to help.
My wife and I go to the rallies. We give money where we can. We make our calls to Congress. We show our support to #BlueWave candidates on the national scene. We often feel powerless because, living in Massachusetts, we have representatives who (generally) vote the “right” way.
So what more could I contribute? I learned from my late parents that you could do little things to make a big difference in people’s lives. This is why I write – not to try to add to the national conversation, but to clarify points of action for regular people just like me who want to help. Over the years, I’ve built up a modest platform, based on my writing and my podcast. If I can affect a small change using my skills and assets – even within my relatively small circle of influence – I have to do it, right?
When we look back at this horrible era of American history, I want to be able to say that I was on the right side – and that I actually did something about it. The size of my impact doesn’t matter. As I’ve said before: You don’t have to lead to make a difference – you just have to show up.
Here’s the thing: I am not special – you can do this, too. In your own way, on your own terms. I don’t purport to have all the answers, but what follows is my strategy, as it’s unfolding. And it will serve to explain why I’m partially giving up on Facebook this year.
A Strategy for Political Action
I believe in writing. As it says right on my “about” page, good writing empowers, educates, and entertains. It inspires, instructs, and impels. But just producing it and perfecting it is not enough. Even the best writing will be robbed of the opportunity to do any of these things if it’s not delivered to the right person, at the right time, in the right way.
You need a strategy. My entire career has been devoted to helping writers, and I’ve learned first-hand what works and what doesn’t when publishing Web content. I’ve run literally hundreds of live experiments with my own writing and my clients’ writing too.
Let’s start with the basics: A writing platform and a way to propagate it.
My Writing Platform of Choice: Medium
If you don’t know Medium, it is a “social blogging” platform that gives you an opportunity to get in front of a ready-made audience. It was conceived and created by the folks at Twitter, but it focuses on long-form content instead of 280-character tweets. They have a nice, clean user interface which is geared towards reading and writing.
They help you propagate your pieces using algorithms to send out email digests that are custom built based on peoples’ interests and reading activity on the platform. If your articles are good enough (voted via “Claps” from other Medium members), they may qualify to get highlighted.
There’s a social aspect to it as well, in that you can “follow” people and they can follow you too. And perhaps best of all, it’s (naturally) connected to Twitter so that it’s easy to harness your existing network to drive traffic to your pieces. Within 24 hours, it’s possible to get hundreds of readers of your piece.
They make it fairly easy to coordinate with your blog, with tools to safely syndicate blog posts so that Google doesn’t view it as duplicate content (critical for SEO, which I cover in more depth here: How to Syndicate Content Safely on Medium). My strategy with Medium is two-fold:
- Repurpose some posts from my site that might be of interest to this audience. For SEO purposes, I want the “canonical” version to live on my site, not Medium’s.
- Write original pieces that only appear on Medium – especially if the topic is outside the interests of my blog readers.
See the end of this piece for some highlights from my Medium “stories.”
My Social Platform of Choice: Twitter
You have to look past a lot to see the virtue of Twitter. The bots, the trolls – and I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a woman on Twitter (or the Internet, in general). Read Lindy West’s Shrill if you have any doubt that this is a festering problem. There are countless stories of serial abuse, and Twitter is often mute to the point of complicity. I sincerely hope that they take a stronger stand on this in the coming year. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also that it would be a shame for us to “lose” Twitter. Why?
Twitter is the best social platform for propagating an idea. It’s an open system, which means that it’s geared towards connecting with people that you don’t already know. And it’s real-time, so it remains the best place to find out what’s happening right now. These two things are its biggest strengths – and the Twitter and Google properties (Medium, YouTube, and even Google Plus) are geared towards these goals.
Contrast that with Facebook. It’s where you connect with people you already know. Sure, you can get outside the “four walls” of your existing network, but as a rule, the Facebook and Microsoft properties (Messenger, Instagram, LinkedIn, Skype) are focused on replicating your real-world social graph.
Now, if you view social media is way to connect with your friends and family, then Facebook makes a lot of sense. And if your goal is to connect with your existing business network (past and present), then LinkedIn makes a lot of sense. But if you want to reach beyond your existing network, then you need to get outside of platforms that contain you inside your past and present.
Facebook Is Not a Social Media Platform
Facebook is an ad platform. We may think of it as a social network, using it to connect with people. But its primary goal is to keep you on the platform so that it can serve ads to you. There’s no inherent problem with this – television is an ad platform too. The only difference is that on Facebook, we are the ones creating the content – not TV producers in New York and Los Angeles.
For businesses that rely on a Facebook Page, they’ve seen the effects of this first-hand over the past few years. Organic reach has now dipped to below 4%, meaning that if you have 1,000 followers, only 40 of those people (on average) will see any given post of yours. Unless you pay Facebook to “boost” your post or run an ad.
And by now, we know the story of how the Russians used easy access to this ad platform to corrupt the 2016 U.S. election. And why not? It was easy – and by all accounts, fairly cheap given the outcome they achieved. The fact that the “administration” and Congress are doing almost nothing about this may be looked upon by historians as the beginning of the true structural downfall of our nation.
Unless we stop it now.
And I do believe that it will happen. Regulation is coming, and it’s going to change Facebook – a lot. I outline the coming changes in Facebook Is Headed for Trouble: The Coming Storm. Direct access without transparency and accountability must be stopped. Mark Zuckerberg has made some overtures to this effect in this year’s “personal challenge” of his, but we’ll see if he has the appetite – or the courage – to stand up and “reclaim” his platform.
Facebook and the Four Walls
Even if Facebook makes big changes, it still harbors a core problem.
Without ads to fuel their flight, ideas don’t travel beyond the “four walls.” It’s a true echo chamber, with an idea circulating around a group of your friends and family who are already likely to agree with you – bolstered by algorithms to cement the process.
Back to our goal here – political engagement. A room full of nodding heads and gentle agreement isn’t going to activate anyone. Sure, arguments arise on Facebook. It may even feel like fighting. But when it’s contained within a circle, it has a low chance of affecting any change.
I’m not saying that you should abandon Facebook. Connection among friends is important. The arguments we have are important. These debates sharpen our skills and the ability to articulate our positions. They help us think through our opinions and test them in real time – with people we trust.
But if we never leave the room, our power is muffled. Our voices, muted.
This is scary.
Even if you’re more of a reader than a writer, this should worry you. We’re sold freedom and connection, yet we’re being governed and manipulated.
“It’d better have a dream that goes beyond four walls.”
– Quoting “Battered old Bird” by Elvis Costello
Facebook’s Fail Points: A Case Example
To illustrate the reach of an idea, let me pull back the curtain and share an example of trying to propagate a call to action.
On Dec 11, I published the following article on Medium, arguing that Congress was no longer even pretending to represent us, but their corporate donors and lobbyists instead. The piece is called (More) Taxation Without Representation.
It includes a two-point action plan for anyone who wanted to help make Congress honor their oath of office and represent us in Washington.
On Dec 19, the day that Congress was voting on the GOP Tax Scam, I posted this tweet:
The pharmaceutical and insurance industries each hired over 600 lobbyists to make sure that they get what they want out of this #TaxBill. How about we start punishing those companies who are buying up Congressional members? #GOPTaxScam https://t.co/yeGg3SfYjJ
— Michael Boezi (@mboezi) December 19, 2017
After about 12 hours, it was retweeted over 100 times, favorited over 100 times, with 7 comments.
I posted something similar on Facebook at about the same time:
After about 12 hours, it was shared once, liked by 3 people (one of whom was my wife), with 1 comment.
The difference in engagement is staggering. Yes, I’m cherrypicking one stark example to illustrate my point, but this pattern happens over and over again. It’s not an anomaly, it’s a regular occurrence.
There are three potential fail points on Facebook:
- My fault. Maybe the post wasn’t compelling enough to my Facebook audience. Posted with the wrong timing, the wrong message, or the wrong context.
- Facebook’s fault. Maybe the Almighty Algorithm just didn’t show my post to my Facebook friends, because it deemed that they wouldn’t be interested.
- My friends’ fault. The least possible of the three scenarios. My friends and family are empathetic and engaged. Fatigue is feasible, 2017 was a rough ride for those with a heart.
Each of these are possible contributing factors – alone or in combination. This is one example with a pair of posts. But a sustained pattern suggests that there’s more to the mystery – that it’s the very nature of the platforms themselves.
Twitter’s Reach Is Simply More Powerful
Fast forward to 3 weeks later, and this single tweet was viewed over 35,000 times, with over 900 interactions:
I had this post pinned to the top of my feed for most of that time, so that certainly contributed to its performance. But still, it reached many more people than my total follower count. In other words, it propagated.
The only way to get this kind of reach on Facebook is to pay for it. Even with a comparable audience size, I can tell you (from my own experiments using Facebook Business Manager for clients) that it would cost about $900 to get this level of interaction – and that would be considered a good price-per-click.
For Twitter, this reach is free. Yes, it’s backed by years of building and curating an audience, interacting with them regularly, and earning their trust. But do the same thing on Facebook, and you get weaker results. For your personal profile, the algorithm is hard to measure because it’s individualized for each of your friends’ preferences. And the stats are clear for Business Pages – they throttle your reach to 4% or less.
The Logical Conclusion
My only conclusion is to use Facebook less. If it’s not having an impact – and that’s my goal – why bother?
I still want to be able to keep up with my friends and family and share in their important life milestones, so I’m not cutting it off completely. But sometime last year, I disabled all notifications so that Facebook didn’t have access to me 24/7. It gave me a little control. But at the start of this year, I demoted the app from my home screen to inside a folder NOT on the home screen.
I’m going to try this as an experiment, and see how it goes. I am hopeful that it will have a positive effect. There are now a bunch of studies that show how happiness levels go down significantly after using Facebook (and to be fair, other social platforms too). I’ve noticed this myself. No matter what amount of time I spend, whether it’s two minutes (a quick check in), 10 minutes, or longer on Facebook – I’m less happy than when I started.
I don’t really have another way to control for this, except to not open the app as much. If I know that the outcome is going to be that I won’t feel as good, why wouldn’t I do this?
The fact is, Facebook doesn’t exist to serve me or you – it exists to serve its advertisers. Every piece of the UX is devoted to that goal. You and I may think we’re on Facebook to see pictures of our friends’ kids, keep up with our extended family, and share important news. But those are our priorities – not Facebook’s.
So we’ll see how it goes. I’ll still post my articles sometimes, because it’s easy to do so. I’ll auto-post to my Business Page because it’s almost zero incremental effort. But I won’t expect anything in return from this platform that doesn’t really work for me anyway.
But at the same time, I’m going to do less work serving Facebook’s interests this year. If you’re looking for me, you can find me on Twitter and Medium: @mboezi.
Oh, and I’ll keep writing songs like these that keep me sane.
Some of my Medium highlights:
- (More) Taxation Without Representation
- Save Net Neutrality
- The Criterion of Cruelty
- 100% Media Saturation: How Trump Became an Uninvited Guest in Every Home
- I Hereby Resign as President of the United States
For Further Reading
Using Twitter in a positive way:
- I have a growing Twitter list of #BlueWave2018 candidates here. Show support for them, RT them, donate to them!
- How To Fix Twitter For Good by Nathan Bernard
The studies that show how Facebook reduces happiness levels:
- A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel by Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis
- Why do we keep using Facebook? by Dylan Tweney
- Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge
Facebook’s core problem may be its downfall:
- Facebook Can’t Be Fixed by John Battelle
- Facebook Asks Itself If it’s Time for Us to Unplug by Cris Beasley
- Facebook Is Headed for Trouble: The Coming Storm by Michael Boezi
- More Speculation About Facebook’s Future by Michael Boezi
- Facebook May Be In Trouble by Ophir Gottlieb
Some people who gave me the courage to try reducing Facebook’s presence in my life:
- I stopped checking Facebook for a year, without deleting the app. Here’s what I learned. by Renée Fishman
- 11 reasons to delete your News Feed by Louis Barclay