More than 60,000 people have signed up to get my public Facebook updates. This number grows steadily, with more than 1,000 people subscribing each day. Last week, I put up a post asking these new subscribers how they’d found me. Of the 34 comments I got back, eight were appropriate and on-topic. Fourteen of the replies were in Arabic. The comments in English included: “b.coz you are god gifted honey,” “BECAUSE YOU ARE IMPORTANT TO ME!,” “hi bayby,” “becase of you are very beautifull so i hope that if i add you/ you give me response,” and the extremely classy “you are so beautiful and i want to fuck you.”
How did my Facebook account transform from a place to interact with people I know into a global soapbox with an active contingent of international, occasionally foul-mouthed admirers?
In September, Facebook introduced Subscribe, a feature that allows users to follow my public updates without us becoming friends. Very simply, it’s like having Twitter followers for your Facebook posts. As Slate’s innovations editor, it’s my job to stay up on the latest in social media, so I immediately signed up.
How did I get so many subscribers so quickly? When Subscribe launched, Facebook started suggesting “public figures,” including journalists, whom they think its users would like to follow. Facebook representatives won’t offer many hints about how these people are chosen. All they’ll say is that such things are determined algorithmically—you can’t sign up or opt out of being recommended, and there isn’t a human cherry-picking who gets exposure. Since I was an early adopter, it’s possible that I got a jumpstart in accruing numbers, and in December I learned that the algorithm started recommending me to people with a small ad in the right rail of newsfeeds In my experience at least, it seems that the more subscribers you have, the more subscribers you’ll get, and on and on until you have 60,000 (and counting).
Other journalists have had similar experiences with Subscribe. My friend and former colleague Bianca Bosker, the senior tech editor at the Huffington Post, has more than 115,000 subscribers. Of the 45 comments on a recent article she shared about SOPA, just a handful had anything to do with online piracy. The rest were messages like “hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii bianca how r u” and “If to look beautiful as a friend greetings from Turkey selamlar.by sevinirim.”
In speaking with various journalists who are using Facebook Subscribe, the people who seem to be having the most problems are young women who enabled the feature soon after it launched. Some women have complained about outright graphic and pornographic messages, which are in violation of Facebook’s terms of service. Others are flooded with feeble pick-up lines, off-topic remarks, and messages in foreign languages that don’t appear coherent when passed through Bing Translate. While both men and women have complained publicly and to me directly about these low-quality comments, men—unsurprisingly—get fewer comments on their looks or from people with romantic intentions.
Liz Heron, the social media editor at the New York Times, has more than 250,000 subscribers. Like many I spoke to, she was an early adopter. Heron, though, is an exception in that she characterizes her experiences with Subscribe as generally positive. She has found some effective, if time-consuming, strategies for dealing with her huge subscriber base. Heron has created and posted her own comment-moderation policy, and 15 minutes after posting each update, she does a sweep to delete inappropriate comments. She also spends time engaging her smart and thoughtful subscribers. Due to her conscientiousness, Heron estimates that 85 percent of the comments she gets are on-topic.