Facebook’s Machinations, And The Mighty Hayride

We’ve heard from a number of our readers, and particularly some of our most rabid followers on Facebook, that they never seem to see our material in their news feeds anymore. That has been a bit perplexing, since The Hayride has over 18,000 Facebook followers – a larger number than ever before.

What’s more perplexing is despite that number, our post engagement is down – significantly – from what it was when we had half as many followers. Even more perplexing than that is the all-too-common pattern for us that Hayride posts will start to gain quite a bit of traction on social media, and particularly on Facebook, but seem to suddenly evaporate after a couple hundred shares. Over and over again we have posts which look like they’re about to go viral on social media and then…nothing.

We’re not alone in this. Since Facebook changed their algorithms last year, several websites more dependent on viral content for traffic and ad revenue than we are – two of them being Truth Revolt and Little Things – have shuttered. There is a lot of buzz out there to the effect that Facebook’s algorithm change was a partisan attack on conservative media, which would be of a piece with lots of other creepy things Facebook has been accused of, so much so that Wednesday there was a piece at POLITICO specifically on the subject.

That POLITICO story referenced a late-March segment on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show in which the host lambasted Facebook as “not a neutral host; it has a political agenda.” Carlson called Facebook’s changes an “act of ideological warfare, and it’s far more worrying than anything that Cambridge Analytica has done, or is accused of doing.”

POLITICO also quoted conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, whose Daily Wire site is also heavily dependent on viral sharing, as describing the effect of Facebook’s changes on DW’s traffic as “substantial”…

“It’s clearly made an impact on us; it’s clearly made an impact on every conservative site,” he said. “I think that Facebook needs to be held to public account for its constant manipulation of what its users are seeing.”

And more, Patrick Brown, CEO of the conservative Western Journal, told POLITICO his site’s Facebook engagement has been cut in half – which affected WJ significantly since 50 percent of its site traffic came from Facebook referrals.

In our case, traffic is down about half since last year, and the amount of traffic from Facebook referrals has dropped from 85 percent of our total traffic to just under 20 percent. Since we have a pretty decent readership base, particularly in Louisiana as the state’s only significant conservative media source, and since unlike lots of other sites out there we can sell our own ads and monetize ourselves through events we do (meaning we’re not solely dependent on digital advertising networks for high-volume, low-CPM ad revenue), Facebook’s algorithm change hasn’t killed us.

But it has put a ceiling on our traffic. And more importantly, it has denied our readers an opportunity to easily view our content.

Do we agree with Carlson that this is an ideologically motivated attack? Frankly, we don’t have the time to judge that. All we know is we put a lot of effort into building up a Facebook presence to connect with our readers, and all of a sudden a room full of snowflakes in Austin, Texas has intervened in that relationship to tell you and us that we can’t see each other so much anymore.

And that’s just obnoxious, whether it’s political or not.

Not to mention Facebook’s excuse for all this simply won’t wash. Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook’s priority would be to show users “news that is trustworthy, informative, and local.”

Well, Louisiana followers of The Hayride not getting to see posts about what’s happening in their own state legislature doesn’t quite meet the standard Zuckerberg said his algorithm change was based on.

And by the way, if the quality of our content was in question, you’d expect our bounce rate, the number that reflects how many users look at one post on our site and then navigate away, to be up rather than down. It isn’t. Our readers view more pages per visit now than ever before. That doesn’t happen on a site with bad content.

All of which is to say while we’ll continue to have a presence on Facebook, that isn’t going to be our focus anymore. Instead, we’re moving on to something better – and hopefully, eventually, bigger.

We’ve looked around at a number of emerging social media platforms – among them Vero, Gab and Mastodon, all of which have features we like, but so far the one we think has the most promise is Mighty Networks. MN is interesting; its CEO Gina Bianchini was the co-founder of Ning, a platform which had a lot of potential but didn’t quite take off like Facebook and Twitter did, a few years ago, and it’s built on a much different set of values than Facebook is. With Mighty Networks, the users don’t belong to the main site – their affiliation is with the networks themselves.

Meaning that our readers are ours, not Mark Zuckerberg’s or Bianchini’s, and we – not a room full of kids with tattoos and nose rings in Austin – control the network. We don’t see any evidence that Mighty Networks is busily spying on its users, either. In fact, in our brief exploration with a nascent presence there we haven’t seen so much as an attempt at ads.

Oh, did I forget to mention our presence there?

I shouldn’t even call it a nascent presence. It’s really more of a fetal presence. But we’ve launched an exploratory thing called The Mighty Hayride, and we’d like to encourage our readers to have a look around. We’re really just getting started with it, so it’s still under construction, but in the last couple of days we’ve played around enough with it and loaded it with enough content so that it at least has the preliminary feel of…something.

And it’s not just the Hayride staff producing content at TMH. Some of our more precocious readers are beginning to use it as well, posting links to interesting stories as they see fit. With a very small community only a couple of days old it’s already showing a little bit of personality.

I’ve got a call set up with one of Mighty Network’s management team next week to learn more about how the platform works and what we can do to develop TMH. If all goes well we’ll be ramping up operations there, including developing some exclusive content at TMH – which is something we don’t do on our Facebook page at present.

Others who have been negatively affected by whatever it is Facebook is trying to do have decided to get mad. Not us. We’re not even interested in getting even. We’d rather get ahead. So we’ll do what that takes, and we’re on the lookout for The Next Big Thing.

The Mighty Hayride might even be it. We’ll find out.

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