Translation note. This text was originally written in Brazilian Portuguese and presented at the 2019 edition of INTERCOM, at Belem (PA), Brazil. In view of the emergence of Mastodon and the problems involving Twitter, I decided to translate this text into English so that it would gain greater reach. In addition, I took the liberty of making minor corrections and additions to the content so that the reflections presented here are not restricted to Facebook.
This text has as its main goal to reflect on the issues that involve and surround the prioritisation of the use of platforms to address the presence of both individual and as commercial in the digital context. For this purpose, a description of the transformed through which communication on the Internet has passed until reaching the context current. The focus is on Facebook (but the reflexions here can be applied to all other commercial social media platforms), taking into account the impact and influence of this company in social, political and commercial aspects. The text aims contextualize and problematize the focus on a communication mediated by platforms and their impacts on the lives of people and organisations. in the end they are listed some referral questions that may be preferred in thinking or proposals for future work.
FROM THE SOCIAL WEB TO FACEBOOK
In the mid-1990s, when Internet access began to be exploited commercially, enthusiasts discovered a different way of communicating. It wasn’t as easy as making a phone call, and it didn’t require the physical space, presence and engagement of a large number of people as a class.
Building a website and publishing any kind of information was an undertaking relatively easy, although it required specific knowledge of the language HTML developed years earlier by Tim Berners-Lee. Creating services like Blogger, developed by Pyra Labs in 1999, provided the necessary push for publishing content to reach the masses. The growth of personal websites and blogs practically accompanied the growth in the number of users who connected to the Internet for the first time each day during that period.
The production and distribution of information by people who were previously only readers and spectators gave rise to a new term. In a time when the Internet became part of the lives of societies, social media emerged.
From 2001, when the use of social platforms for publishing content starts to gain popularity, it also starts, which can be considered the future of journalism (GILLMOR, 2006). People (and later also companies) come to understand that, with social tools, they no longer need intermediaries to consume (and produce / disseminate) content. The wide adoption of social media marks the definitive migration to digital culture (SANTAELLA, 2003).
The communication model that prevailed at the time, in which media acted as the “official sources” of the events (GILLMOR, 2006; KAPLAN; HAENLEIN, 2010) gradually loses importance and starts to compete space with a new way of producing, distributing and consuming information. In that new cultural context, people and institutions of different types began to act and interact in a hybrid, dynamic environment where communicational flows could be multidirectional (CASTELLS, 2009).
Initially, this new context indicated that people and companies could act as producers and disseminators of information, being able to achieve efficiency in the process using social media, minimising or eliminating the power influence of the money (and mass media) in communication initiatives (KELLY, 2002).
The discovery and adoption of social media has proved to be very important for social and, of course, commercial dynamics. The logic of the mass media in which the struggle of public attention was a zero-sum game seemed to have been fully overcome. The adoption of social media, initially with websites, provided an understanding of that it was no longer necessary for a company to monopolize a particular medium nor a mass media channel to get your message out to a large number of people just for the purpose of starting a relationship with a fraction of that audience.
With social media, people began to understand that the principles of marketing one to one, presented at the turn of the 1980s to 1990s (PEPPERS; ROGERS, 1995) could come true. The commercial internet and the web were, then treated with great enthusiasm, providing a bright and euphoric era of social media. Manifests (LOCKE et al., 2000) and recipes for action (GODIN, 2000) potentiated the emergence of relationship marketing practices.
In terms of advertising communication initiatives, the action of publishing content on its own site, independently had its efficiency catalysed by the emergence of search engines like Google. With this type of combination, it was enough for companies to get the attention of those who are in the process of finding a solution is offered and show the offer. The possibility of reaching a potential buyer through an action based on his behaviour (the search) became known as winning the zero moment of truth, or ZMOT, for its acronym in English (LECINSKI, 2017) and, even today, it influences the development of advertising actions and of communication in the context of the internet. In this way – as we are all in many parallel processes of searching for solutions to our day-to-day problems and constantly looking for information, news, products or just answers – ended up developing a profitable advertising communication market around search activities and content published on social media (ENGE et al., 2012; FOX, 2010; HALLIGAN; SHAH, 2009).
The emergence and popularisation of Social Networking Sites (SNS) catalysed the process of people’s participation with publication and dissemination of content in the Internet. These services, by allowing and being based on the construction of a profile individual, where and through which people can connect with each other and show their connections; as well as publishing content and interacting with other people and their publications (BOYD; ELLISON, 2007; ELLISON; STEINFIELD; LAMPE, 2007; RECUERO, 2009, 2012) has provided profound changes in how people relate to each other (SPYER, 2017), inform themselves, deliberate on issues social and political, interact with brands and learn (ROCKEMBACH; GARRÉ, 2018; TEZANI, 2017).
It is through SNS that society presents itself and acts in the digital context. However, despite providing great enthusiasm, due to the increasingly prominent of this type of technological resource, it is necessary to reflect on these spaces; especially Facebook, which has more than 2.3 billion users 3 active monthly on the platform.
Despite being termed and commonly identified as an SRS, it is necessary to face Facebook (FB) as an enterprise that transcends this definition. Interestingly, when looking for a definition of what Facebook is on the company’s own website, there is no clear answer. In an interview, the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, defines it as a space for information sharing where people can publish what they want (VOGELSTEIN, 2009). In this sense, more than an SNS, FB is also a social platform, bringing together the characteristics of an SNS and also those of social media (OBAR; WILDMAN, 2015).
But, taking into account that Facebook’s influence goes far beyond the sharing links, images and short texts with friends and family is I have to look at Facebook as something even bigger. In addition to people, companies and organisations of different natures use Facebook as a space for interaction with its internal and external audiences; explore the services offered by the company as communication platforms and customer service, which leads to understanding it as something that goes beyond the definition of a social networking site or social media. one can consider Facebook as a central agent in social relations; a platform which acts as an intermediary between agents of different modalities.
USERS OR EMPLOYEES? THREE MOVEMENTS TO UNDERSTAND THE FACEBOOK DOMAIN
In the early 2000s, more experienced internet users started using feeds and RSS aggregators to stay informed. At that time, the Internet was experiencing exponential growth in publishing multimedia content and keeping up with the updating of various sites through RSS feeds and readers (or aggregators) it brought great gain to the people.
The process of production, circulation and consumption of information was, at that time, context, very site-centric. In a very important strategic move for the company (reference) Facebook implements a way to, at the same time, learn about the habits and preferences of its users, and provide this user with a way of showing his network which sites he values and admires. The “like” button, created in 2009, provided FB with the possibility of gathering information about its users and their habits.
In the meantime, despite the solution provided by RSS feeds and aggregators, the process for this to work satisfactorily represented an enormous amount of barriers for most people. In a second very strategic movement for the company, in 2011 the Facebook news feed is made available. this solution proved to be FB’s easy and efficient answer to the difficulty that most people people faced with RSS.
With these two moves – the like button and the news feed – Facebook becomes a central space for social life on the network. It constitutes as the a place where people’s tastes and habits are exposed, functioning as buttons, in a way form similar (but not necessarily identical) to those observed when on display of Orkut communities into personal profiles (RECUERO, 2006).
Creating the newsfeed converts Facebook to that place on the internet where everyone could publish content without needing their own website to do so. Through the newsfeed, people can follow each other’s posts practically in real time. This drives mass membership to the platform. Not it took a while for companies to also discover and start to explore that space. With this, the dynamics around the circulation of content becomes quite messy. People and brands fight for attention.
The solution to lessen information overload for users has been shown to be also as an opportunity for Facebook: the reduction in the organic reach of posts. Organic reach would be reduced so that brands that want to reach most of the audience they fought so hard to build could only be reached when Facebook got your money. Pay to achieve. The same logic as can be seen in the mass media. This solution is considered extremely strategically important because it is the perfect solution to provide FB with a template of business that guarantees you a continuous stream of income.
As said, these three moves – recovering: like button, email feed news and control of the organic reach of posts – are crucial for company consolidation.
In doing so, FB closes an important loop that provides the big business with power and, consequently, control over the lives of people and actions of companies.
It starts with monitoring and gathering information about people’s habits and tastes through the like button; This procedure assists in the collection of data that will help consolidate what we know as big data (COULDRY; POWELL, 2014). The second drive is the news feed, which gives people a space to centralised dissemination and consumption of information, without the difficulty represented by RSS. This second movement also takes companies into space, providing the noise to the FB, reason that is used as justification for the final movement: control of the organic reach of the posts.
In a way, that sums up Facebook: Everyone works for Mark Zuckerberg, even though they are not registered employees of the company. The people that use the web every day tell Facebook about their preferences via clicks on the like button on sites outside of FB and also on pages. Furthermore, Important information is provided through the engagement metrics, namely: Likes on posts, comments, shares, and link clicks. And the perfect illustration of the theme “The machine is us/using us” (WESCH, 2007).
Also, brands and other companies work for Zuckerberg by dumping content on FB and fighting to get more followers and build a larger audience for your posts in that space. The great advantage of these two forms of work provided to Facebook – for people and companies – it’s obvious: there is no remuneration paid by Facebook to those who collaborate with data and content as explained above.
It is the third strategic move worked on in this section that provides the financial income direct to Facebook. By controlling the sorting and reach of posts, the entities present on FB that intend to publish messages destined to their tanners have to pay ever-increasing sums of money to be able to provide your posts with reach to a larger part of your audience tanners. It is also this strategic move by FB that puts it in the same position of mass media companies, as discussed below.
PLATFORMS AND MASS MEDIA: MORE SIMILARITIES THAN DIFFERENCES
Even though Facebook should be or was initially envisioned to be constituted as an SNS, its growth has transformed it into a platform with features on a list that far surpasses those of an SNS and business objectives others. In addition, its operation is based on a business model that resembles what we are used to seeing in the mass media.
Companies that operate following this logic are called “attention merchants” (WU, 2017). The operating logic of this type of entrepreneurship is simple. The objective of this type of business is to keep the attention of the people focused on their products interspersing content of interest with offers advertising. The product is offered free of charge to people and companies that aim to reach these people to show them their commercial offers pay to these operators (the merchants) who display the message to the users.
Facebook is a complete example of an attention merchant; operating within the same logic of selling advertising spaces, as seen in the context of the mass media, on TV or Radio programming. However, due to the possibility from the collection of user information, such as an advertising platform, Facebook can go much further than broadcasters and even segmented media publications. And it is at this point that a difference can be found crucial between the modes of operation of Communication companies in the mass media and platforms like Facebook.
The differential that is, at the same time, the guarantee of a distinctive capacity for FB and a threat to different social processes is the issue of context and behaviour. Through user control functionalities, it is possible to configure the Facebook news feed to display information only and posts of direct interest to people. This is done by liking (i.e.: opting for follow/view posts from specific pages) and following only those friends which people want to receive/see news in their feed. However, there are also the non-direct way to configure the feed. Facebook learns from people’s interactions people and starts to prioritise publications that the machine understands to be of greater interest for each one. The consequence of this is called a filter bubble (PARISER, 2012): people will visualize only what pleases them. With this it is expected (and achieved) that people will stay more and more time connected to the service. The longer connected, the greater the amount of advertising can be shown to each user scrolling through the newsfeed for news.
How Facebook is collecting information about your habits and likes users within the platform (through interactions with posts) and also outside – through “like” buttons and navigation tracking scripts installed on websites that choose to insert these buttons in their environments – there is a virtually constant collection of countless information about people’s behaviour. FB’s initial justification for carrying out this type of action is that with these information the company will be able to provide increasingly intelligent filters to advertisers while providing users with exposure to advertisements that are more and more in line with your interests at any time.
Through this type of initiative based on people’s behaviour – Online Behavioural Advertising (BEALES, 2010; UR et al., 2012) – Facebook inserts different advertisements; personalised in the feeds of each of your users. despite the initial logic be the same – the platform acts as a message intermediary between advertiser and audience – there are some potentially problematic issues in that application.
In the context of mass media, if two people are watching the same television program in their homes, but in different neighbourhoods of the same city, the advertising message they will watch is the same. In the case of Facebook, due to the fact that publications of an advertising nature can be based on the behaviour of each user, each of these users will be impacted by different messages.
The consequences of this type of guidance are many. Starting with itself nature of Facebook where advertisements and sponsored messages are not easily identified by users. In this sense, there is an initial difficulty of up to differentiate what is advertising and what is a post that would naturally appear naturally in the newsfeed.
In addition, due to the personalisation of the message based on filters that were built from the characteristics, habits, tastes and behaviours each user, advertising messages can also be highly personalised and tailored to trigger specific behaviours in each user.
This question brings to the table another complicating point that deserves to be duly questioned and studied.
Anyway, returning to the similarities with the business model of mass media, if a certain brand wants its message to reach a particular audience, you must pay Facebook for the platform to display this message in the form of ads or boosted posts (posts made by pages liked by users but not shown to them due to low organic reach controlled by the company itself).
Through this set of strategic procedures, Facebook and other social media platforms – much more similar to what was previously understood as mass media – are adopting traditional intermediation practices than as a Social Networking Site.
However, as stated, with filtering and ad targeting tools, FB is even more efficient than mass media in providing the visualisation of ads and posts only by users who fit or meet parameters specific.
The initial idea that the SNS would constitute open spaces where participants (be they people or companies) could relate, publish and make information to circulate independently is, in practice, a fantasy. To understanding FB as an attention merchant, the realisation that free and truly disintermediated communication evidences a rather easy to see. In addition, the issues and specificities of advertising exploitation based on user behaviour is potentially problematic.
To become financially viable, these entities start to intervene in what is displayed to your users. What is published in these spaces is no longer shown for all the people each user or brand is connected with; only part of these people view what is posted by their connections. In that sense, organic reach is reduced and non-organic reach prevails; that is, understood as “unnatural” and that needs to be inflated through boosting of posts and of course ads.
By introducing this form of relationship with posts and advertisements, it is established, then, a billing model based on the intermediation of posted messages. The adopted model is that only through payments to those who control the reach of the posts, those interested in having their messages consumed by their public can spread messages and have the audience reached.
Therefore, although the context is digital, the logic of mass media, based on financial power, is the one that still prevails. Those with more money can take advantage of the best seats at the best times on TV, print media or radio stations and reach your audience. On Facebook, those with money can make your posts reach your audience.
IS THERE A SOLUTION? FINAL REMARKS AND REFLECTIONS
It is necessary, in the first place, to reinforce the point that the Internet, and consequently the web is an open and free space. In this sense, understand that no good solution for the collective can come from giving up control of the spaces and delegate this power to a large company.
It is necessary to regain control of communication processes (production, circulation and consumption of information) in the digital context (LANIER, 2019). Be by through the adoption and maintenance of spaces that are not controlled by corporations or with other initiatives that are not subverted to the imperatives of big data (COULDRY; TUROW, 2014). Perhaps the answer lies in remembering that the web is an open system and that RSS is still a very current and used technology (HOLIDAY, 2013).
In addition, for both individuals and companies, it is important to keep in mind that this social space represented by FB has a function. The features of this space for connecting people, as listed in the characteristics of an SNS.
Furthermore, for companies, today Facebook is used as a way to attract people and place them at the top of a marketing funnel (HALLIGAN; SHAH, 2009). deny your useful to try to completely eliminate this service from the digital context can be harmful. However, it is important to prioritize its use. Spaces like FB can be very useful for publishing messages, but they should not be the only way to do it advertising communication in the digital context.
In terms of business communication, although, as mentioned above, Facebook can be a good space to publicize a message and get people to a website and start communicating with them, it is necessary to understand that FB should not be the only way to achieve this. And, returning to the aspect of interpersonal communication, it is necessary to if you consider it strategic for individuals not to provide data that may later be worked aiming not the best for each one, but to meet interests and corporate goals (COULDRY; TUROW, 2014; SEARLS, 2012; SILVEIRA, 2017).
It is not the best solution to solve the problem and meet the interest collective, letting one or a few corporations control or decide what can or not see (JURNO; D’ANDREA, 2017). That’s what mass media has always done and that’s what Facebook does. For companies, it is not smart to invest so much money in content and deploy efforts to create an audience that cannot be reached because the platform controls this reach via algorithm (GILLESPIE, 2018).
It is still necessary to consider the sequence of controversies involving Facebook, especially since the US presidential elections of 2016, when it was demonstrated that the platform had been used to influence outcomes of that claim based on data explored by the company Cambridge Analytica (GRANVILLE, 2018). Since that time, repeated problems involving the management and management of user data were evidenced, causing a significant reduction in company reliability.
As it is a publicly traded company, the issues and controversies to be respect for the privacy and access to the data of its users represented an impact in the value of shares traded on the stock exchange. As a result, Facebook comes working intensely on its image and, recently, announced a shift, no less controversial, towards a more privacy-oriented focus (SULLIVAN, 2019). The controversy of this turn is due to previous statements by Mark Zuckerberg on the end of privacy (JOHNSON, 2010). Therefore, the last attack of the company towards a scenario more focused on the protection of user data is viewed with much disbelief and scepticism; certainly deserving study and future follow-up.
There are still a number of issues to be considered involving Facebook that help to understand the argument of this article that we concentrate the presence – both individual and institutional – in the digital context on platforms it may not be beneficial. Some of them deserve referral here for future developments.
The first is related to the influence of what happens on the platform in election results, for example. Due to algorithmic manipulation and formation of filter bubbles, communication platforms and especially Facebook, play an important role in spreading disinformation and news false. Actions aimed at prioritising checked and verified information contradict the dynamic created and maintained by the platform to put in people’s newsfeeds that which originates in your circles of friendship. As a result, sources of information checks are pushed into the background, creating an even bigger problem. An
One of Facebook’s action fronts in this regard is to act as an intermediary, also in financial terms, between users and content (SLOANE, 2017). for representing more a financial barrier (both for vehicles and for users), this type of initiative has obvious developments that deserve attention, problematisation and investigation.
Another important issue concerns the proliferation of hate speech in platform and how the company handles it. Issues have recently come to light involving the precarious working conditions and remuneration of employees of companies contracted by FB that act as responsible for evaluating content posted and flagged on Facebook (NEWTON, 2019).
Finally, one last issue that deserves follow-up and referral refers to the question of Facebook’s dominance in different aspects of communication in the social context. So much so that one of its co-founders demonstrated, in an opinion article, the need for the company to be divided, given the influence and power it wields on actions and society (HUGHES, 2019).
It is hoped that, through this text, the main issues related to impacts of platform actions, especially Facebook, in the context of Digital Communication have been addressed. Furthermore, it is expected that contemplated the intention of forwarding a set of possible developments of investigation for future work regarding the important issue of the use of social platforms, especially Facebook.
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