Broken on Purpose: Why Getting It Wrong Pays More Than Getting It Right

Many of us managing Facebook fan pages have noticed something strange over the last year: how our reach has gotten

Many of us managing Facebook fan pages have noticed something strange over the last year: how our reach has gotten increasingly ineffective. How the messages we post seem to get fewer clicks, how each message is seen by only a fraction of our total “fans.”

It’s no conspiracy. Facebook acknowledged it as recently as last week: messages now reach, on average, just 15 percent of an account’s fans. In a wonderful coincidence, Facebook has rolled out a solution for this problem: Pay them for better access.

As their advertising head, Gokul Rajaram, explained, if you want to speak to the other 80 to 85 percent of people who signed up to hear from you, “sponsoring posts is important.”

In other words, through “Sponsored Stories,” brands, agencies and artists are now charged to reach their own fans—the whole reason for having a page—because those pages have suddenly stopped working.

This is a clear conflict of interest. The worse the platform performs, the more advertisers need to use Sponsored Stories. In a way, it means that Facebook is broken, on purpose, in order to extract more money from users. In the case of Sponsored Stories, it has meant raking in nearly $1M a day.

It doesn’t end with Facebook, either. Being broken pays off, so social media is often deliberately broken. In fact, nearly every major social network, site or app has greedily pursued this logic.

Why are there so many fake Twitter accounts—accounts that can be bought in increments of 1,000 for less than $20? Because during their hot growth phases, social networks had to post continuous user growth. They had to show how many accounts were being created. And with billions of dollars at stake, they weren’t exactly motivated to eliminate fakes.

Why can’t you browse Craigslist listings on Google Maps? Well, for some reason, Craig appears to be personally reluctant to innovate. Which would be fine, except he won’t allow anyone else to innovate, either, because it threatens his company’s lucrative position as the lazy but dominant listings network. Earlier this year, he went as far as to sue the much-loved service Padmapper for rolling out the kind of features Craigslist should have had years ago, thus keeping housing search broken and all of us dependent on Craig.

Why do blogs publish hoaxes and hit pieces so often? So they can post “corrections” after benefiting from the rush of traffic from the sensational first draft. The upside is traffic, the downside is … more traffic. Take the recent Shell Oil Hoax, which was orchestrated by Greenpeace, and which Gawker Media fell for. Gizmodo, Gawker’s sister site, broke the fake story: “Malfunctioning Cake Ruins Party and Spews Liquor All Over Oil Tycoons” for a quick 30,000 pageviews. Later in the day, Gawker got around to debunking the story their sister site had created the market for with a post called “Viral Video of Shell Oil Party Disaster Is Fake, Unfortunately” that earned three times as many viewers.

It reminds me of that episode of The Sarah Silverman Program where she discovers that the same manufacturer makes her potato chips, toilet paper and diarrhea medicine. Her conspiracy was more visceral, but it’s the same con that social media has discovered: cause a problem, then market the solution.

When users are not paying for services up front, the publisher must extract a “cost” somewhere. Online, this cost is our attention, our time. We pay for social media with pieces of our lives—whether it’s because a blog baits us into reading something or a game tricks us into sticking around long after we should have left—and these bits of life are sold to advertisers, literally, for pennies.

Right now, the purveyors of these tactics are riding high. Like Facebook, they admit that this is the game and say, in effect, what of it? Pay us or leave.

Earlier this year Forbes writer Jeff Bercovici grew frustrated with the popular game app “Words with Friends” and a glitch that allowed users to cheat very easily (guessing words an endless amount of times until the app said they’d found one). Since there is no penalty for being wrong, players can “win” without actually knowing any words—and other users have no idea whether or not their opponent is cheating. Mr. Bercovici contacted Zynga, the maker of the game, to see what they would do about it.

Their reply is typical, proving how casually and openly publishers acknowledge breaking things on purpose.

“I don’t think it’s a problem to be fixed,” the founder said, despite the complaints. “We always intended it to be that way.” Though they know how to eliminate the loophole, one fact holds them back: it would “[take] away a little bit from the framework that’s contributed to the success of the app.”

Thankfully, we know where this short term mindset gets us. Remember Myspace? Remember how clunky the site got, how many pages you needed to load just to login? Myspace pioneered the “broken on purpose” model. As it grew more popular, users clamored for improvements—improvements that the company’s engineers discovered were being blocked by Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. Mr. Murdoch had a $1 billion revenue target in mind for the network, and reducing page loads, even frivolous ones, shrank advertising inventory and took the company further from those goals.

Publishers who follow in its footsteps may soon join MySpace in the dustbin of history.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of  Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers.

Broken on Purpose: Why Getting It Wrong Pays More Than Getting It Right