“Hey Cathy, Can I add you on Facebook?”
“Sure. My full name is…”
“Got it! You’re on top of the result since we have 12 mutual friends.”
This has become a common scenario in our everyday life. Thanks to technology, we are able to connect with people inside and beyond our circles. In fact, most of us wouldn’t even blink before sharing our personal information on the Internet in exchange for a greater level of connectedness. However, according to Jose van Dijck, connectedness is only one of the two meanings of “sharing” in the context of connective media. “It relates to users distributing personal information to each other, but also implies the spreading of that personal information to third parties (van Dijck, 2013)” In other words, “sharing” is consisted of “connectedness” and “connectivity”. In her article “Facebook and the Imperative of Sharing”, she argues that in Facebook’s history, “sharing” is an evolving norm whose meaning has been negotiated by both its owners and users; moreover, with the assistance of coding technology and interface strategies, Facebook has formed the ideology meaning of sharing that is now not only widely accepted by the whole social media society, but also partially legalized.
Facebook’s Coding Technologies
In the first part of this chapter, van Dijck explains how Facebook uses coding technologies basing on the double meanings of sharing. The first type of coding is intended for connectedness, which encourages users to share information with other users via “purposefully designed interfaces”, whereas the second type is related to connectivity, that is, sharing user data with third parties (2013). The reason for differentiating the two meanings and their coding structures is that they determine information is control – who is authorized to share the information, and to whom.
Although the two mechanisms are entirely different in theory, one is more recognizable than the other in real life scenarios. Facebook, as well as other owners of social media platforms, tries to promote or even exaggerate connectedness to distract the users from noticing the hidden connectivity. That being said, there is a conflict of interest in information control – social media owners pursuing completely openness, that is, both connectedness and connectivity, while many users demanding maximum connectedness yet minimum connectivity. There is no doubt that users are the ones feeding the owners and have the rights to ask for favorable adjustments. However, owners have the power over coding technologies, and, therefore, the advantage over users (2013).
The Lesson Learned from Beacon
Of course, it’s not all not all sunshine and roses for Facebook in the process of normalizing its ideology of sharing; one of the biggest storms would be the introduction of Beacon in 2007. Back then, users were signed up to Beacon by default without opt-out and forced to see their friends’ purchases on 44 companies. The fact that Facebook had no intention sugarcoating its commercial purposes and that “sharing” was still not a norm in the online environment have caused outrage among users, and, eventually, the shut down of Beacon (2013).
Realizing the online society wasn’t ready for this level of sharing, instead of giving up the approach, Facebook decided to expand the idea of sharing in people’s mind instead. In order to do that, Facebook surprised everybody and adopted a new strategy – to further exploit the technical features of the platform to allow the exposure of more companies. To do that, Facebook developed a series of APIs and tools that allow the platforms interactions between Facebook and third parties. According to van Dijck, platforms, “The contextual meanings of ‘connectedness’ and ‘sharing’ thus shifted from interaction inside the social network site to interaction with all virtual life outside Facebook’s territory” (2013).
A Further Step: Open Graph and the Like Button
Most of us are already familiar with the like button, but what is Open Graph? “The Open Graph API allows external websites to deploy user data collected on Facebook to create personalized experiences on their own websites”, van Dijck explains (2013).
(The Best Facebook Open Graph WordPress Plugin, 2016)
(The Best Facebook Open Graph WordPress Plugin, 2016)
To my understanding, Open Graph is, to an extent, “Like Button 2.0”. According to Simon from the Facebook platform team, like button is for users to building their identities by expressing their preference (What is Open Graph, 2013). However, we do more than just “like” and “dislike”; we do, we listen, we play – we make actions. Therefore, Open Graph is introduced to collect the exact things that users are doing and to use these data to provide information on users’ timelines.
(For more information on Open Graph, check out the introduction by Facebook developers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Q207Z-HkUo)
The Mysterious Algorithms
With Open Graph, more data are collected and used for “magic”. Have you ever seen updates on posts that your friends have liked? Chances are, they are always from theses few friends of you. Sounds odd, right? It is actually not strange if you understand how algorithms manipulate your timeline. Van Dijck reveals that behind these features are “proprietary algorithms EdgeRank and GraphRank, which filter data produced by users and shape them into a meaningful stream of information for that specific user” (2013). In fact, using these algorithms, Facebook has a “ranking” of your friends. Those who you are closer to, as in chatting with more, tagging more or simply closer to geographically, are worth more. For example, your bestie who you always hang out with would worth more than the middle school classmate that you haven’t talked to for years. Thus, the visibility of your friends on Facebook is actually determined by the algorithm – what it thinks you want to see or don’t want to see.
On the surface, users are able to gain a more customized experience with better connections with their social circles, which aligns with the first meaning of sharing. Yet, the more we appreciate the first meaning the more we tend to neglect the hidden algorithms and protocols that are related to the second meaning. In van Dijck’s words, Facebook uses the user-centered rationale of connectivity to hide the owner-centered logic of connectivity (2013).
Evolving Strategies and Business Models
Over the years, Facebook has been deploying effective means to grow its global business. In 2011, Facebook changed its traditional interface of a database structure to a narrative structure – Timeline. By doing that, Facebook aims at imitating a real life experience for the users to develop emotional connections with the platform. It also allows companies to advertise in a narrative way, which is proved to be more eye-catching and effective. In this case, not only does Facebook push acceptance of a narrative form on the site, it also changes the way most corporates sell their stories. In addition, Zuckerberg never stops partnering with apps to boost the traffic and to monetize connectivity, in the name of a smoother user experience. The company has been sticking to the core values of online social network economic, including attention and population. There are numerous of other examples, such as granting members access to online games to receive 1/3 of the sites’ revenues, allowing brands to pay KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) to promote products, etc. (2013).
Over years, it is not just the Facebook interface that has been changed; it is also the shared norms. Nowadays, how many people still remember that the initial understanding of sharing is simply a user-to-user exchange? Sharing in today’s context basically means unfolding your life to the whole world. “Facebook’s success ultimately deepens on customers’ willingness to contribute data to allow maximum data mining” (2013). In creative ways, it actually altered the online environment and people’s mindset for its own interest.
As Social Media Owners
Although the double meaning of sharing doesn’t sound nice to the audience, it is a principle for social media owners to bear in mind. Similar rationale can also be adopted in other business modes. In other words, before we achieve our purpose, be it collecting information or selling product, we should find a way for the users to feel that they are getting the maximum from us.
Currently, I am working as a digital marketer in a research company. The campaign aims at collecting data on China’s market in the form of giving out free skincare products (to claim the free product, users have to finish a questionnaire). In order to get the highest exposure possible, we approached KOLs for cooperation. To do that, we intend to reward 1000 followers of a KOL with free products in exchange of promotion of the brand on social media. During the process of convincing KOLs to accept the deal with the lowest commission possible, I stressed on how much they can get from this campaign. First of all, the campaign is going to drive up traffic on their sites and therefore expand their influence. Secondly, interacting with followers in a rewarding way increases reputation. Thirdly, since I chose KOLs with similar characteristics (beauty, health, quality) of our products (organic and healthy), I emphasized on how much the campaign would enhance their own images. When it comes to convincing users to provide their information, we focus on the purpose of offering more personalized services instead of being too explicit about the goal of collecting user data.
Knightsof Reason,. (2009). Retrieved from http://orig06.deviantart.net/d72a/f/2009/002/8/a/scary_facebook_by_recursiveloop.png
Van Dijck, J. (2013). Facebook and the Imperative of Sharing. In The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.
The Best Facebook Open Graph WordPress Plugin. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.digitechwebdesignaustin.com
What is Open Graph. (2013).