I publish a few different podcasts and often find myself advertising new episodes by syndicating new posts to various social media silos. Sadly, few social media services consider audio to be "a thing", despite often having robust support for video. I'm certainly not the first person to notice this...
The Facebook Algorithm Mom Problem
For quite a while now, I’ve been publishing most of my content to my personal website first and syndicating copies of it to social media silos like Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Facebook. Within the Indieweb community this process is known as POSSE an acronym for Post on your Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere.
The Facebook Algorithm
Anecdotally most in social media have long known that doing this type of workflow causes your content to be treated like a second class citizen, particularly on Facebook which greatly prefers that users post to it manually or using one of its own apps rather than via API.  This means that the Facebook algorithm that decides how big an audience a piece of content receives, dings posts which aren’t posted manually within their system. Simply put, if you don’t post it manually within Facebook, not as many people are going to see it.
Generally I don’t care too much about this posting “tax” and happily use a plugin called Social Media Network Auto Poster (aka SNAP) to syndicate my content from my WordPress site to up to half a dozen social silos.
What I have been noticing over the past six or more months is an even more insidious tax being paid for posting to Facebook. I call it “The Facebook Algorithm Mom Problem”.
Here’s what’s happening
I write my content on my own personal site. I automatically syndicate it to Facebook. My mom, who seems to be on Facebook 24/7, immediately clicks “like” on the post. The Facebook algorithm immediately thinks that because my mom liked it, it must be a family related piece of content–even if it’s obviously about theoretical math, a subject in which my mom has no interest or knowledge. (My mom has about 180 friends on Facebook; 45 of them overlap with mine and the vast majority of those are close family members).
The algorithm narrows the presentation of the content down to very close family. Then my mom’s sister sees it and clicks “like” moments later. Now Facebook’s algorithm has created a self-fulfilling prophesy and further narrows the audience of my post. As a result, my post gets no further exposure on Facebook other than perhaps five people–the circle of family that overlaps in all three of our social graphs. Naturally, none of these people love me enough to click “like” on random technical things I think are cool. I certainly couldn’t blame them for not liking these arcane topics, but shame on Facebook for torturing them for the exposure when I was originally targeting maybe 10 other colleagues to begin with.
This would all be okay if the actual content was what Facebook was predicting it was, but 99% of the time, it’s not the case. In general I tend to post about math, science, and other random technical subjects. I rarely post about closely personal things which are of great interest to my close family members. These kinds of things are ones which I would relay to them via phone or in person and not post about publicly.
Posts only a mother could love
I can post about arcane areas like Lie algebras or statistical thermodynamics, and my mom, because she’s my mom, will like all of it–whether or not she understands what I’m talking about or not. And isn’t this what moms do?! What they’re supposed to do? Of course it is!
mom-autolike (n.)–When a mother automatically clicks “like” on a piece of content posted to social media by one of their children, not because it has any inherent value, but simply because the content came from their child.
She’s my mom, she’s supposed to love me unconditionally this way!
The problem is: Facebook, despite the fact that they know she’s my mom, doesn’t take this fact into account in their algorithm.
What does this mean? It means either I quit posting to Facebook, or I game the system to prevent these mom-autolikes.
I’ve been experimenting. But how?
Facebook allows users to specifically target their audience in a highly granular fashion from the entire public to one’s circle of “friends” all the way down to even one or two specific people. Even better, they’ll let you target pre-defined circles of friends and even exclude specific people. So this is typically what I’ve been doing to end-around my Facebook Algorithm Mom problem. I have my site up set to post to either “Friends except mom” or “Public except mom”. (Sometimes I exclude my aunt just for good measure.) This means that my mom now can’t see my posts when I publish them!
What a horrible son
Don’t jump the gun too quickly there Bubbe! I come back at the end of the day after the algorithm has run its course and my post has foreseeably reached all of the audience it’s likely to get. At that point, I change the audience of the post to completely “Public”.
You’ll never guess what happens next…
Yup. My mom “likes” it!
I love you mom. Thanks for all your unconditional love and support!!
Even better, I’m happy to report that generally the intended audience which I wanted to see the post actually sees it. Mom just gets to see it a bit later.
Dear Facebook Engineering
Could you fix this algorithm problem please? I’m sure I’m not the only son or daughter to suffer from it.
Have you noticed this problem yourself? I’d love to hear from others who’ve seen a similar effect and love their mothers (or other close loved ones) enough to not cut them out of their Facebook lives.
The IndieWeb and Journalism
I suspect that a lot of the value of the IndieWeb philosophy is that it encompasses how many people inherently wish the internet worked. As a result I’ve seen a growing number of people discovering the concept de novo either on their own or by borrowing bits and pieces from their friends and colleagues who are practicing parts of it as well. This harkens back to the early days of the web when bloggers incrementally improved their websites based on what they saw others doing and sharing ideas more directly and immediately with their audiences.
An(other) unwitting example in the wild
Recently I came across the personal website of journalist Marina Gerner which is one of the few, but growing number, I’ve come across that is unknowingly practicing some of the primary tenets of the IndieWeb movement that I suspect more journalists will eventually come to embrace to better reach and engage with their audiences.
Another brief example I’ll mention having seen recently that almost explicitly rewrote the IndieWeb philosophy verbatim was on the the website redesign launch of PressThink, the blog of Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU. It’s a great read individually as is the majority of what Mr. Rosen writes.
Though I read many of the publications for which Ms. Gerner is writing and might see most of what she’s writing organically, having all of her work in one primary location is a spectacular convenience! I can quickly and easily subscribe to all her work by email or RSS. For a working journalist, this is a boon, because like musicians in the evolving music business a lot of the value that they bring to the table (and to the venues in which they play) is a result of their individual fan bases.
While her personal website probably doesn’t drive even a tiny fraction of exposure for her work as when it appears in The Economist or the Financial Times, for example, it does allow her fans to easily keep up with what she’s writing and thinking about. Ideally in the future, outlets will make links to writer’s bylines direct to the writer’s own website rather than to archive pages within their own publications (or perhaps both if necessary).
Journalistic Brand & the Sad Case of Leon Wieseltier: The Counter-example
Here I’m reminded of the seemingly sad case of Leon Wieseltier, the long time literary editor of The New Republic, who was ousted by its editor-in-chief and publisher Chris Hughes, a former Facebook executive. Wieseltier’s brand was almost all-too-wrapped up in The New Republic, where he had worked for decades, and when he was pushed out (ostensibly for the puerile desire to get more clicks and eyeballs), his output and influence seemingly disappeared overnight. Suddenly there just wasn’t as much of him to read. While he still has some output, as a fan who enjoyed reading his work, the problematic hurdles of finding his new work were the equivalent of using a cheese grater to file down one’s knee cap. I suspect that if he had his own website or even a semblance of a Twitter presence, he could easily have taken a huge portion of his fans and readership built up over decades along with him almost anywhere.
While there are some major brand names in journalism (examples like James Fallows, Walt Mossberg, or Steven Levy spring to mind), who are either so wrapped up in their outlet’s identities or who can leave major outlets and take massive readerships with them, this isn’t the case for the majority of writers in the game. Slowly building one’s own personal journalistic brand isn’t easy, but having a central repository that also doubles as additional distribution can certainly be beneficial. It can also be an even bigger help when one decides to move from one outlet to another, bridge the gap between outlets, or even strike out entirely on one’s own.
From a work/business perspective, Ms. Gerner’s site naturally acts as a portfolio of her work for perspective editors or outlets who may want to see samples of what she’s written.
Sadly, however, she doesn’t seem to be utilizing the WordPress category or tag functions which she could use to help delineate her work by broad categories or tags to help find specific types of her writing. She appears to have a “featured” category/tag for some of her bigger pieces to appear at the top of her front page, but I can see the benefit of having a “portfolio” or similar tag to give to prospective outlets to encourage them to read her “best of” work. This would also be helpful to new readers and future fans of her work.
Categories/tags could also be beneficial to readers who may want to follow only her book reviews and not her economics related work, or vice-versa. With a bit of massaging, she could easily have an economics-only RSS feed for those who wanted such a thing. I spent a bit of time in December writing about how I customized my own RSS feeds and helping to make them more discoverable.
An IndieWeb mini-case study of Ms. Gerner’s website
Because it might take some a bit of time to delve into and uncover a lot of the spectacular and inherent value in the the massive and growing wiki behind IndieWeb.org, I thought I’d take a minute or two to point out some of the subtle IndieWeb-esque things that Ms. Gerner’s site does well and point out a few places she (or others) could quickly and easily add a lot of additional value.
IndieWeb-forward things that she is doing
She has her own domain name.
If you’re looking for all things Marina Gerner on the web, where better to start than http://www.marinagerner.com?
She owns her own data.
Technically, it looks like her site is hosted on WordPress.com, so they own, backup, and maintain it for her, but there is a very robust export path, so she can easily export it, back it up, or move it if she chooses.
She’s posting her own content on her own site.
I’m not sure if she’s posting on her site first using the concept of Post on your Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere (POSSE), but even if she’s posting it secondarily (known as PESOS), she’s still managing to capture it on her site and thereby own a full copy of her output. If any of the publications for which she’s published should go out of business or disappear from the internet, she will still own a copy of her work. (See and compare also the commentary at Anywhere but Medium.)
She’s even got a syndication link (or attribution) at the bottom of each article to indicate alternate locations where the content lives on the internet. Since she’s not using Webmentions to back-port the resulting commentary (see below for more), this is highly useful for finding/reading the potential ensuing commentary on her posts or interacting with it in the communities in which it was originally intended.
Missing IndieWeb pieces that could provide additional value
Syndication Links to Social Media
There are no syndication links to where her content may be living on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media spaces to give an idea of the conversations that are taking place around her work. In addition to the value that these conversations add to her work, they also give an idea of the breadth of the reach of her work, which could be useful not only to her, but to future outlets/employers.
Webmention and back-feed from Brid.gy
She’s clearly not using Webmention (now a W3C Recommendation) or services like Brid.gy which would allow her to have the comments and conversation about her articles from other sites or social media silos come back to live with the original articles on her own site. Given the quality of what she’s writing, I’m sure there are some interesting threads of thought stemming from her work which she’s not capturing back on her own site, but certainly could. As it stands, it’s highly unlikely (and perhaps nearly impossible) that I would go trolling around the thousands or hundreds of thousands of links to try to uncover even a fraction of it myself, but it wouldn’t take much for her to be able to capture all that data and make it easy to consume.
Webmention is a simple protocol that allows one website to indicate to another that it has been mentioned elsewhere on the web–it’s akin to Twitter @mentions, but is something that works internet-wide and not just within Twitter. Brid.gy is a service that bootstraps services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Flickr via API to make them support webmention until they choose to implement it directly themselves.
Given the schedules of many journalists, they may not always have time to pay attention to the commentary on past articles, but if she were aggregating them back to her own site, she could occasionally check back in on them and interact as necessary or appropriate. Even better she could do this herself without necessarily needing to spend the additional time and energy to go to multiple other social websites to do so. I suspect that a lot of the value that journalists get out of Twitter could be better had by aggregating some of it within their own websites instead.
As an example, the reader will note that I also have syndication links (by means of icons) at the bottom of this post, but I’ve enabled Webmentions and have most of the replies and commentary from these social silos coming back to this original post to aggregate as much of the conversation back to this original post. In the event that any of these social media sites are acquired or go out of business for any reason, all of this commentary will be archived here on the site. As an experiment, if you’d like, click on the Twitter icon at the bottom of this post and reply to that post on Twitter, your reply will be sent to me via webmention through Brid.gy and I can choose to display it as a comment under this post.
Owning her replies to others
Naturally if she does interact with her pieces via other social channels (Twitter, for example), she could post those replies on her own site and automatically syndicate them to Twitter. This would also allow her to own all of that subsidiary content and conversation as well.
Search and SEO
Once she owns all of her own writing and subsidiary data, her platform of choice (WordPress along with many others) also provides her with some good internal search tools (for both public-facing and private posts), so that her online hub becomes an online commonplace book of sorts for not only searching her past work, but potentially for creating future work. Naturally this search also extends to the broader web as her online presence gives her some reasonable search engine optimization for making it more discoverable to future fans/followers.
And much more…
Naturally the IndieWeb encompasses far more than what I’ve written above, but for journalists, some of these highlighted pieces are likely the most immediately valuable.
I’ll refer those interested in learning more to browse the wiki available at IndieWeb or join the incredibly helpful community of developers who are almost always in the online chatroom which is accessible via multiple methods (online chat, Slack, IRC, etc.) Major portions of the IndieWeb have become easily attainable to the average person, particularly on ubiquitous platforms like WordPress which have simple configurable plugins to add a lot of this simple functionality quickly and easily.
Another IndieWeb Journalism Example
While I was writing this piece, I heard Mathew Ingram, who currently writes for Fortune, say on This Week in Google that he’s been posting his work to his own website for several years and “syndicating” copies to his employers’ sites. This means he’s got a great archive of all of his own work, though I suspect, based on his website, that much of is posted privately, which is also an option, though it doesn’t help me much as a fan.
I’d love to hear thoughts, comments, or questions journalists have about any of the above. Are there other online tools or features journalists would like to see on their own websites for improved workflow?
Please post them below, on your own website along with a permalink back to the original article (see “Ping Me” below), via webmention, or even by responding/replying on/to one of the social media silos listed just below in the syndication links, or natively on the social platform on which you’re currently reading.