Facebook’s Other Critics: Its Viral Stars
For the past two years, Ryan Hamilton has been getting Facebook-famous. Mr. Hamilton, 28, manages a network of Facebook pages and makes viral videos for his “Hammy T.V.” channel — mostly lowbrow fare with titles like “Shocking Pit Bull Social Experiment” and “World’s Hottest Pepper on Girlfriend’s Thong” — that have earned him a level of popularity typically associated with Kardashians and BuzzFeed food clips.
But to hear Mr. Hamilton tell it, Facebook has failed him.
“It’s a complete mess,” he said. “No one trusts Facebook.”
Unlike the lawmakers who will grill Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, in congressional testimony this week, Facebook influencers generally aren’t bothered by data privacy issues or Russian propaganda campaigns. Their concerns are closer to home.
They say that the company’s recent decision to emphasize stories shared by friends and family as well as trusted news outlets — part of the company’s response to an epidemic of sensationalized clickbait and false news, and an attempt to foster what Mr. Zuckerberg has called “meaningful social interaction” — has hidden them from view. They argue that Facebook owes much of its growth to the kinds of entertainment they offer, and that users will spend less time on the social network if it’s not shown to them.
“Facebook has got to start treating influencers with more respect,” said Roozy Lee, a social media promoter who manages a network of celebrity and influencer Facebook pages with more than 200 million combined followers. “These people need to make a living.”
Chief among influencers’ complaints: Even though Facebook has made it easy for them to reach enormous audiences, it has been slow to deliver tools that would let them share in the advertising revenue their posts generate. Facebook has also cracked down on certain types of link-sharing deals that many influencers have used to earn money on the side.
Fidji Simo, a vice president of product at Facebook, said the creator community is “incredibly important” to the company. “We’ve been listening closely to them to better understand what more we can do to help them achieve their goals and develop their presence on Facebook,” she said.
Until recently, Facebook influencers mostly kept their complaints to themselves out of fear of angering the company. But as Facebook flails in the public eye over its data and privacy issues, some power users are seizing on a moment of vulnerability to push for change.
Facebook appears to be listening. In recent weeks, the company has invited groups of influencers to meetings at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Topics discussed at the meetings included improving reach for creators, branded content policies and better lines of communication with company leadership, according to a person with knowledge of the meetings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.
Arguments about monetization, as the practice of letting creators share directly in advertising proceeds is called, are as old as the system itself. YouTube, which opened a revenue-sharing program more than a decade ago, has long been accused by angry creators of demonetizing videos for arbitrary and inscrutable reasons.
Those complaints gave rise to violence last week, when Nasim Najafi Aghdam, a YouTube creator who had been angered by the platform’s revenue-sharing policies, shot and injured three employees at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., and then killed herself.
Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo and video app, has long hosted a thriving community of influencers. But Facebook itself, which was seen by some creators as old and uncool, has had a harder time attracting them. It has been trying to steal attention from YouTube in recent years by courting popular creators, and promising them access to the platform’s gargantuan user base. In 2016, Mr. Zuckerberg proclaimed a “new golden age of video,” and the company spent millions of dollars enticing media organizations and celebrities to create videos on Facebook.
In 2015, the social network began testing a revenue-sharing program with a limited group of creators, and last November, it rolled out Facebook Creator, a special app designed for professional users. Recently, the social network announced that it was testing some additional tools for creators, including a way for users to purchase monthly subscriptions to their favorite creators’ pages.
But some of these features are still not widely available, and many influencers say that Facebook’s charm campaign amounts to too little, too late.
“It feels like they’ve pulled the biggest bait-and-switch of all time,” said Dan Shaba, a co-founder of The Pun Guys, a Facebook page with 1.2 million followers. “They’ve been promising monetization from the moment we got in.”
Mr. Hamilton, he of the hot-pepper thong video, said, “I did 1.8 billion views last year. I made no money from Facebook. Not even a dollar.”
Many of the influencers I spoke with recognized that Facebook had given them large audiences in the first place, and that it was the company’s right to change its policies at will. Several also acknowledged that some of their videos represented the kind of cheap entertainment that Facebook has consciously chosen to de-emphasize, as it tries to prioritize high-quality and local news. (In January, Mr. Zuckerberg said that the company had “made changes to show fewer viral videos to make sure people’s time is well spent.”)
Still, the influencers said, the company owes its most popular creators something. And they warned that by making it harder for users to see viral videos, Facebook may be jeopardizing its own business, which relies on users spending lots of time on the platform.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” said Mr. Shaba. “Facebook was turning into a viral media dumpster, and they wanted to eliminate that. Still, I’d still prefer that over seeing a million wedding pictures.”
Rick Lax, a magician whose videos garner more than a billion views per month, said that while he largely agreed with Mr. Zuckerberg’s position, he disagreed with the idea that viral videos couldn’t be worthwhile.
“A good video can be the catalyst for a meaningful connection,” Mr. Lax said. “Think of a good Facebook video like a Mother’s Day card. It doesn’t stop someone from sharing her feelings with her mom — it gives her a jumping-off point.”
While waiting for Facebook to invite them into a revenue-sharing program, some influencers struck deals with viral publishers such as Diply and LittleThings, which paid the creators to share links on their pages. Those publishers paid top influencers around $500 per link, often with multiple links being posted per day, according to a person who reached such deals.
In January, Facebook threw a wrench into that media economy by changing its branded content policy to prohibit creators from accepting money for such link-sharing deals, and re-engineering its News Feed algorithms. Traffic to many viral publishers plummeted overnight. LittleThings, a female-focused digital publisher that had amassed more than 12 million Facebook followers, announced that it was shutting down and blamed Facebook’s News Feed changes for cratering its organic traffic.
“People are saying that their feeds are getting stale, and they’re missing the diversity of content they felt they had selected,” Gretchen Tibbits, the president of LittleThings, told me. “People carefully curated their feeds, and Facebook took that away.”
Ms. Simo, the Facebook executive, said in a statement that “our branded content policies prohibit Pages and Profiles from accepting payment to share content they did not have a hand in creating, since the spirit behind branded content is to have a collaboration between brands and creators to produce content.”
In Facebook’s defense, it’s hard to feel entirely sympathetic for the people who built huge followings with videos like “Sweater Pill Hacks” and “Tinder Girl Gets High Off Fake Weed,” only to have them pushed out of sight. Facebook is attempting to clean up its platform, and some creators did clutter the site with clickbait and spammy links. But all of this jockeying raises a larger question about how well Facebook truly knows its users, and how much it can steer their media preferences without veering into paternalism.
Right now, the social network is working to improve what Mr. Zuckerberg has called the “long-term well-being” of its users. But what if what many Facebook users really want — as measured by their clicks and eyeballs — are prank videos, D.I.Y. hacks, and sensational headlines?
Mr. Shaba, the co-founder of The Pun Guys, said that he had been trying to produce more high-quality content that would have a better chance of getting boosted by Facebook’s algorithms. But he said that he hadn’t yet cracked the code.
“Our fans are messaging us being like, ‘You guys don’t post videos anymore,’” Mr. Shaba said. “We have. You just aren’t seeing them.”