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Social media and creativity—it’s pay to play

Here we are, well into the 21st century.  Technology is a part of every aspect of our lives—from the lifestyle tool that are smartphones to high-speed Internet, there’s a seemingly infinite number of tools available simply to communicate with each other.  For artists, the Internet was heralded as a new day in being able to share and promote new art, archiving old art forms, and creating a world where new art forms could flourish.

Facebook was a great start to reach people, and reach people we did.  By simply starting a page, you could create a home base with access to millions upon millions of Facebook users.  It quickly became the go-to place for artists to connect with their audiences, and was the epitome of “DIY” culture.  Advertisements?  They were off to the side, a way for Facebook to keep the platform free.

It’s amazing, if unsurprising, the path that Facebook took after going public with an IPO.  Shares were sold, and now shareholders want to make investment dividends.  This is where we saw the now-omnipotent Facebook slide slowly from an open culture to one that attempts to wring more and more money out of people.

If you are the average user posting vacation pictures on your newsfeed, it doesn’t affect you.  Aside from the front-and-center advertisements that now break up the news feed, it’s still free to be an individual on Facebook.  It’s also still free to create a group for individuals to talk about their favourite subjects.  When we start getting into Pages, however, it’s a completely different story.

Pages are for what I’d refer to as “entities”—corporations, public personas, artists, brands.  Here is where Facebook attempts to make money, but instead of levelling the playing field, it creates a distinct have-vs.-have-not culture.  The first phase of this was to create a way to pay to join those advertisements.  However, it was never a case of paying extra to bump your chances of being seen higher—the reach of posts was severely throttled in order to force pages to pay in order to reach even half of the people a post would have reached before.  The inevitable effect was that “entities” who had more money were able to gain more exposure, while artists and start-up businesses, if they could afford anything, were sent to the back of the line.

The next phase, unfortunately, is already in progress.  The new “Explore Feed”, completely separated from the standard news feed, is where all of the page content will go.  This is already being tested in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Cambodia—quietly, subtly, in countries that aren’t North America.  All pages originating in these countries have seen a massive decrease in organic traffic.  A page could theoretically get content on the main news feed—for a price.  This only furthers the divide between the haves and the have-nots—generating even more revenue.  There is also the fact that content you create on Facebook you receive no cut of advertising revenue.

As far as artists go, this puts the stomping out of independent artists’ visibility in favour of corporate interests at an unprecedented level, especially when content creators get paid exactly zero for the content they share.  Looking at the music industry side, it’s not the first time this has happened.  Remember mp3.com?  It began as an open forum for individual artists to maintain profiles and share their music.  It was bought by Sony, and very quickly translated to a system where their own artists were on the front page, and independent artists were an afterthought.  Myspace stepped into this void, but very quickly went the same way, and then fizzled out when Facebook got started.  Soundcloud is still a home for musicians to post their work, but does little to protect piracy outside of itself (their algorithms for catching copyright infringement are also prone to making gross mistakes).

The overall effect of this is that aritsts begin to think about other sites to share their art.  The problem is, the music business at large still considers Facebook the number one place for artists to use, with Twitter being a close second.  Twitter has held on nicely to remaining open, but it’s also much more difficult to talk about your new album or book in 140 characters, much less have it remain far enough ahead in people’s feeds to actually see it.  (Actually, you can pay for a sponsored post, but this is far less forced than Facebook’s model.)

Engaging in social media is an accepted part of an artist’s life.  People like to have access to the artists they admire, and this can be a great boon for both the fan and the artist to have that connection.  Unfortunately, with so much control over what people see, it’s become next to impossible to get the word out about your art.  Explore Feed has already proven to do more damage in smaller countries.  Unfortunately, for musicians, it’s just another example of a company that wants the artist to pay for the pleasure of performing and gaining exposure.