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.
While it’s great that Heron has found successful methods for managing her subscribers, the amount of time and effort she’s put in seem unreasonable. Though Facebook needs to improve its spam detection and comment moderation tools, the problems with Subscribe are more nuanced than they might appear. The comments I’m getting are coming from real people with a different sense of Facebook etiquette, not spambots or a few bad apples spewing porn. As Heron notes, the majority of the problematic comments she gets are “cheesy come-ons,” not outright offensive remarks.
Facebook has more than 800 million users, most of whom are outside the United States. Until Subscribe launched, everyone on Facebook stayed in their own insular communities—we connected with friends, or friends of friends, most of whom shared the same cultural norms. Subscribe, which opens Facebook’s doors to all comers, has revealed that American mores of interaction have not translated globally. Perhaps men who see that they can subscribe to me think it’s an invitation for them to hit on me. I don’t think the cheesy men are “spam,” but do I want them commenting on my posts? No.
Vadim Lavrusik, a program manager for Facebook, assured me that they take complaints of abuse seriously and they are working to improve their tools. In addition to better comment moderation tools, I’d love to see Facebook develop a “cheesy come-on” filter, to help limit not just the flagrantly horrible comments and the spambots, but the ones that are off-topic and annoying. As of now, many of the comments I find irksome aren’t in violation of Facebook’s community standards. A suggestion: Perhaps if someone has been blocked by more than three subscribers they should lose the ability to comment on all subscriber posts.
Until these issues are sorted out, it’s not just journalists who are left shell-shocked—it’s our Facebook friends, too. Since my subscribers started making their presence known on my page, at least 15 friends, co-workers and family members have asked me the same question: “Katherine, WHAT is going on with your Facebook page?” When you write online, you have to take nutty commenters, Internet haters, and creeps in stride as an occupational hazard. When those people are seamlessly mixed in next to your aunt and your friends from high school, it’s harder for everyone to take.
Ultimately, I’m still a Subscribe believer. With improvements, I think it can become a fantastic way for people worldwide to read the stories of American journalists, and for us to think about our audience as global and perhaps very different from us. But Facebook erred by dropping this cannonball of a feature into a pool of 800 million users without better targeting and filters. If the goal is volume over quality, Facebook’s recommendation engine is clearly effective at getting people to subscribe. The quantity, however, far outstrips the quality of thoughtful subscribers, and until that changes I have to shut the spigot off. For my own sanity, I’ve decided to limit who can comment on my posts to only my friends, and friends of friends.
Sorry, new subscribers. I love you and I care about you … but not in that way.
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