Facebook – for good or ill

Chris JonesGreetings from California, where we’re on tour for the next several days. Between the usual touring duties, which include rehearsing, sound-checking, performing, waiting for hash browns orders, and talking back snappily to the GPS, I’ve run out of time for my planned open letter about  people who write open letters. Here, then is another look at bluegrass artists’ ongoing social media challenges:

Ah, Facebook. We love it and we hate it, sometimes at the same time. And, best of all, just when we think we understand it, they change it on us. It’s enough to make you go back and revamp your MySpace page. I think I uploaded my “latest” recording there in 1998.

For the professional bluegrass picker, Facebook looked like a pretty appealing, efficient, and free medium for connecting and interacting with thousands of fans, most of whom just find you themselves through an ever-expanding network of “friends,” “friends of friends” and “followers,” or the new category, “hangers-on.”

If you started out with what used to be called a personal “profile” (as mentioned above, everything on Facebook, including its terminology, is in a constant state of flux), you may have found, if you’re a performer in the public sphere, that it wasn’t that hard to reach the maximum number of  “allowable” friends. This is especially true if you showed no discrimination and just added anyone, including people you didn’t know at all, and scary looking people holding daggers in their teeth in their profile pictures. Facebook never explained why there was a ceiling on the number of friends you could have, but I’m sure they had a good reason (we’re all so trusting, aren’t we?).

Then you may have figured out that what you really needed was a “fan page” to which you could add an unlimited number of fans, who merely had to click the “like” button to be in your circle and receive updates, photos and links from you. Simple, useful, and fun, you may have thought to yourself, innocently.

That’s where the trouble started, at least for me. To be more accurate, and for the fun of assigning blame to someone, the trouble started when Facebook decided to go public and sell shares of stock.

I’m open about my ignorance of capitalism and economics (one look at my career path will confirm that), but I’ve never understood why a business like Facebook needs to raise a bunch of capital through stock anyway. Don’t they just have to maintain some offices in Palo Alto, make sure their equipment doesn’t overheat, and order the occasional pizza?

In any case, for Facebook, having entered the new world of having to please impatient shareholders every quarter who had overspent on their stock, those little advertisements on the side of your screen were no longer enough; they needed to find ways to “monetize” (a sterile way of saying “squeeze” or “put the touch on”) their users.

The first target, naturally, was bluegrass musicians. Not really, but they did immediately zero in on anyone using fan pages, people who were most likely to be small business people of some kind. They decided that the time had come to make those moochers pay to have their updates seen by their own fans.

Some friends of mine who had a regional bluegrass band called Lonesome Dryzzle (“Bluegrass as steady as the rain!”) had a tech-savvy bass player who made sure they got in early on the Facebook revolution, and they had quickly built a fan page following in the thousands. They definitely noticed the changes in Facebook policy: they knew something was up when they posted a picture of a recent performance at a bluegrass festival, and instead of being seen by the 6000+ fans of the page, they were informed that it had been seen by all of 32 people. If they so desired, though, they had the option to purchase exposure to more of their people.

I started to notice this myself, and I discovered that some posts were more widely seen than others, depending on their content. It seemed that if I added a music-related photo, a link to my post, or worst of all, a link to a YouTube video, its audience appeared to shrink dramatically.

It wasn’t my imagination, explained banjo player and creator of the Bluegrass Life page on Facebook, Lee Marcus. In order to extract money out of fiddle players, bakery owners, poets, and the like, Facebook is being even more manipulative than I had thought. As, Lee explained, through the use of algorithms (I have no idea what those are), Facebook is determining when and how much to restrict your audience. It’s not only photos and links that were triggering them to clamp down on your exposure, it’s also certain words, like “invite,” “share” or even “like.”Anything they perceive to have any kind of commercial value to you is now being automatically limited, just in case you might be persuaded to pay for the exposure.

Through my own experimentation, I have a theory that the following words and phrases also significantly decrease your Facebook audience (I could be wrong):

  • “concert”
  • “music”
  • “We’re proud to announce . . .”
  • “I had the good fortune to . . .”
  • “show”
  • “gig”
  • “sow”
  • “gilt” (apparently small pork producers have been taking unfair advantage of free
  • Facebook exposure)
  • “pie” (who doesn’t love pie?)
  • Facebook is p**sing me off. Follow me on Twitter instead”
  • “toaster” (I don’t understand that one)

What Facebook has done now is force us into outsmarting it, by making sure we don’t use these words or phrases, and to be selective about our use of pictures and links. But of course, they’re constantly changing these formulas and standards, so it’s pretty hard to figure out.

One social media expert advised musicians and artists to avoid fan pages altogether, for the reasons above, suggesting instead that we simply create multiple personal pages just starting new ones once the page has reached its friend limit.

Facebook, though, immediately caught on to that trick, and started to do the same restricting of the audience of personal “timelines.” This means that now even if you’re not a professional entertainer or small business person of some kind, your posts are being squeezed too, even if you’re just posting a picture of your newborn baby goat to your friends. Facebook senses magically that you’re in the commercial goat business, and will make sure that only five people (and maybe one or two other goats) will see it.

In other words, we can’t win, unless we’re willing to pay. My guess, sadly, is that other social media will follow. Twitter (also now a publicly-traded company) recently saw its stock take a nosedive because of the view that it was failing to “monetize its growing number of users” (again with the monetizing).

What will happen, of course, is that eventually bluegrass bands like my friends in Lonesome Dryzzle will lose heart and move on. I see signs of it already. As Lee Marcus put it, “The increasing limitations that are set by Facebook for artist and organization pages are becoming more visible on a daily basis. This is a low blow to the ones that have invested countless hours in building their pages, some even investing money..”

Of course Facebook may continue to function for personal networking, posting those cat pictures, arguing about Obamacare, and spreading urban legends, but for musical networking purposes, something better, preferably run by a company without public stockholders, and maybe even with a little more respect for privacy (probably too much to ask), will someday come along.

Maybe what we really need is a true “mom and pop” (make that a “geek mom and pop”) social medium. Volunteers?

If you stick with Facebook, you can at least comfort yourself that, at least for now, the following will still generate a huge audience: Posts about your cold symptoms (attracting a flurry of nutritional and home remedy suggestions), provocative statements about gun control, and pictures of snakes.

If you enjoyed this article, please share below with all your friends. Only about 5% of them will see it, especially if you use the words “invite” or “sow” in your comment, but it’s worth a try.