What Facebook taught us when it destroyed our organic reach

Facebook kicked off a test in six countries where it moved all Facebook Page posts from the News Feed to its new Explore Feed. It showed us that there are some things the media need not fear.

When you post something on your Facebook Page and you see that it has achieved a reach of 10,000, 50,000 or 500,000, you feel like something big is happening. But it’s not necessarily true. And when something on Facebook changes and all your numbers fall by 50% the next day, you feel like something terrible is happening. But this is also not necessarily true.

In recent days, the Slovak media have had a unique experience, which journalists in the rest of the world haven’t. They know what it feels like to see their reach and interactions on their Facebook Pages fall dramatically. They had a feeling that this day would come and were apprehensive, but they’re finding out that there was no reason to be afraid.

When Facebook decided to leave only posts from friends and ads in people’s News Feed and move everything else to a new place called Explore Feed, it showed publishers how they had been fooled by the numbers. Everyone’s reach fell by tens of percentage points, many by more than half. But despite this, traffic levels of most news portals have remained unchanged.

Average number of interactions (likes, comments, shares) on 60 biggest Slovak media Facebook pages has decreased by half since the test.

To Slovak publishers it became very clear that their Facebook Pages were not as important as they thought. Yes, if one dug deep into the statistics, one knew before this that the number of link clicks on a page is just a fraction of the total traffic from Facebook. Changes in the News Feed only emphasized this fact. What’s important are influencers and people who share articles. Facebook Pages help, but their impact is not dramatic.

The Explore Feed test also showed us that the numbers Facebook gives us are useless. They are a meaningless indicator that we stress about, but that doesn’t correlate with anything. So what do we need reach for if it can swing up or down by 50% in a day, while actual traffic isn’t affected?

The Slovak experience can also be summarized this way: if a media outlet has a significant presence beyond Facebook, changes on its social media channels don’t have to be a threat.

This doesn’t mean, however, that Facebook experiments are harmless and we shouldn’t pay attention to them.

Facebook doesn’t think about consequences

In principle, Facebook can test out whatever it wants, and can even fundamentally change the way its services work. We know that it’s been dealing with various problems for a long time. For example, the fact that many people have stopped posting personal content. Those people lost that personal, intimate feeling from Facebook and often found it on other social networks.

We also know that much of the content on dedicated pages (often of questionable quality) takes up too much space in the News Feed and is becoming a serious problem for Facebook. So we shouldn’t be surprised that they’ve come up with the idea of two separate spaces — one for personal content and another for public.

All posts by pages are moved from newsfeed to Explore Feed. In main newsfeed are now just friend and sponsored posts.

Facebook is a private company, and thus can offer or retract its products when it sees fit (even something with as many bugs as there were in the Slovak Explore Feed case). Except that a company that big also has an enormous responsibility and cannot just do as it pleases. What managers in Menlo Park consider a small test can cause serious problems in some countries. The fact that large news portals in Slovakia have maintained a stable audience even despite current changes (including Dennik N, which gets about 40% of its readers from Facebook) doesn’t mean that there wasn’t and won’t be significant damage caused elsewhere.

In addition to national media, local news publishers, human rights organizations, charities and civic initiatives also operate via Facebook. Often, they are left with no choice but to rely on the organic reach it provides them with. Of course, they realize that Facebook has no interest in maintaining or even increasing the reach of their pages, but this doesn’t mean they have to be hostages to its cavalier decisions.

This discussion needn’t be limited to small organizations — it’s also about small countries. Facebook still has not explained how it chose the six countries where it started testing the new Explore Feed. Did it take into account the serious problems with corruption in Guatemala when it made the decision? Was it interested in what investigative reporters in Serbia are experiencing? Did it have any idea at all that there were municipal elections coming in Slovakia only a few days after the changes — elections where fascist candidates were running for public office? Does the information Facebook would gain through this test have greater significance than the unwanted effects of its experiments in Sri Lanka, Cambodia or Bolivia? We can guess the answer: Facebook has no interest at all in what is happening inside its test countries.

The choice of these six countries is a signal that not even Facebook itself knows what to expect from its experiment with Explore Feed. These are small markets where it can experiment for a few months and, even if it doesn’t work, it won’t cost the company much. The head of Facebook’s News Feed, Adam Mosseri, showed his own indifference to these countries when he reacted by saying that currently (!), they’re not planning to launch this version of Explore Feed globally. Mosseri answered our questions, but his comments were not directed to us — they were meant only to reassure the rest of the world.

It’s not a tragedy

Facebook would not dare undertake such crazy experiments in big countries like Germany. There it would not only face exponentially larger resistance, but would also risk politicians responding with a push for tough regulation.

Google has already learned how difficult it is to face pressure from politicians and publishers’ associations. Facebook has not yet seen this first hand, but won’t be able to avoid it. Its problems with fake news and insufficiently filtering out hate speech are just the beginning.

The launch of Explore Feed is not good news for any Facebook Page administrator. But what’s been happening recently on Facebook is not a tragedy. The real tragedy is that we let ourselves be fed numbers by Facebook that tell us nothing about our present or future.

We live in fear that Facebook, with its arbitrary behavior, will shut down other functional media. That’s not exactly true, but it doesn’t hurt to be cautious.

In addition to caution, though, we’ll need certainty as well. We want to be sure that similar wild experiments won’t happen without Facebook warning us first. If Facebook doesn’t start doing this voluntarily, eventually it will be forced to.

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Translated by: Janet Livingstone

Media reporter, analyst, and editor at Slovak news website @dennikn.