Facebook, the Internet, and Why Society Isn’t Doomed After All

By Jonathan Goodman | Follow Him on Twitter
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So many of us now have, in our pockets, a device that allows (mostly free) access to the combined knowledge of all humanity. Instead of accessing this knowledge, it’s most often used to shoot pigs with birds, take selfies, or complete questionnaires by people who desperately want to know what Star Wars character they would be.

Recently, or so many believe, a new ‘epidemic’ has emerged which Facebook’s director of product Mike Hudack eloquently described on his Facebook page:

“[…]The jeans story is their most read story today. Followed by “What microsoft doesn’t get about tablets” and “Is ’17 People’ really the best West Wing episode?”

It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.”

Full quote embedded below:

The obvious backlash to Hudack’s words could have been expected. Facebook has certainly facilitated the passage of trash over real news. But trashy articles about jeans or, for the 10,000th time, “30 Things that Successful People Do” are not the obstacles that we face.

The obstacle is dishonest reporting and cheap link-baiting articles. In a rush to get page views, major news sites and blogs of all sorts are publishing increasing amounts of junky link-baiting articles that “you won’t believe…”.

I’m fortunate to live in a city that runs smoothly while the mayor is out smoking crack. On a positive note, how many cities do you know that wouldn’t miss a beat with this nonsense? But the most disturbing element is not Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, it’s that the citizens of Toronto, with all of the noble causes of the World, chose to look deep into their hearts, dig deep into their pockets, and donate $201,204 to Gawker to attempt and retrieve the video.

When the video was never recovered the money was donated, but that’s not the point. The exposure that Gawker received was priceless.

By now you’re likely thinking that society is doomed. This interconnectivity between networks is proliferating rumor over news, hype over fact-checking, and sensationalism over actionable, helpful content. While it is having this effect, and my Facebook feed certainly contains a lot of hype, it’s also creating a society where interest groups can connect and share.

And this is the beautiful part.

This is what I focus on.

And this is what you should focus on.

As with any major societal shift, the pendulum swings back and forth. Usage of the Internet grew and social media has come to stay. Sites pretending to be news sources but acting as masked gossip rags grew in popularity. The race for page views was on.

What’s also happened is that the truly talented people could now be found. Talented independent musicians like Mac Lethal and Karmin could post their own videos on YouTube and circumvent the gatekeepers. Previous starving artist disciplines like spoken word artists and cartoonists now have a platform while maintaining autonomy over their works.

The best now have a chance to exist and create by simply being the best. This has never happened before.

Aside from the re-emergence of the artist, I believe that the advent of personal filter bubbles is the biggest reason to be proud of the direction that society is going. 3.5 years ago, off of the heels of my first book, I started the Personal Trainer Development Center (thePTDC). It’s become the largest collaborative blog for trainers. For the first 2.5 years it grew purely through word of mouth primarily driven by social media.

You can argue that the fitness industry is the worst offender when it comes to lies, deceit, and ubsubstantiated claims. And yes there are, and will always be, dishonest people trying to make a quick buck off of a pyramid scheme and/or by trying to sell you potentially damaging powders. But the majority of people are able to look past the pressures of immediate financial gain and be the difference that they want to see in the World.

Altruism aside, thePTDC is a business, and a very profitable one with limitless potential. With an almost non-existing advertising budget and margins that make MBA’s shake their heads, the business that’s solely driven with responsible, high-quality and high-value content surrounding a specific interest has made it a valuable entity. Building site’s like thePTDC to service an existing interest group with extremely high quality free content that actually helps people is an attractive venture and business model.

If you build a site based off of re-posting the same viral video, or memes, or cheap laughs, you might get page views. The same goes for news sites that battle to be the first to report when 50 cent botches the first pitch only to find out later that it was due to excessive masturbation (thanks CNN).

Not only are sites that compete for cheap page views well, cheap, they’re also a terrible business model. Love or hate BuzzFeed, they generate a ton of page views but with 300+ employees it was questioned in Sept, 2013 whether or not they were even profitable. That August they had 85 million unique visitors. So if you can build a site the size of BuzzFeed, go for it. Or better yet, improve upon their model like UpWorthy (which was, interestingly enough, co-founded by Eli Pariser who coined the phrase “filter bubble”). The model, however, has been figured out so you’re now competing against a couple established monsters. Not a marketplace that I want to be in.

These types of sites, in addition to many major news outlets that are trying to make a go at this digital thing and generic blogs, have limited themselves to selling ads and low-priced products based off of fear and emotion. Nobody cares about them. The next best thing will come along and they’re finished.

On the other hand large interest sites built off of value breed quality customers, brand loyalty, and longevity.

An interesting message that popped in as I was taking a break from writing this

An interesting message that popped in as I was taking a break from writing this

In the coming years as it becomes even more difficult to reach potential buyers the most valuable business asset anybody can have is a trusted distribution network. Not only will commissions paid out for referrals rise, but a site that serves actionable, valuable material to a specific interest group has endless potential income streams without competing on price.

One thing that social media has done is created an inflated economy. A number of businesses online already have more than enough customers; they’re just doing a terrible job of serving them. thePTDC has 79,000+ fans on Facebook and adds anywhere from 100-400 email leads a day. With the systems already in place and no further promotion, do you really think that I ever need another lead for the rest of my life?

There were always people uninterested in World news. Nothing has changed. Facebook has just thrust it in front of our faces. It’s easy to look at the difference in “likes” that a quiz about Star Wars has as opposed to an intellectual piece about the situation in Nigeria. Nothing is new here. In 1978 the National Enquirer had a circulation of 5.7 million copies.

People can now collect in places with others who share the same passions and motivations. This isn’t a call for responsible media because it won’t happen. There’s always going to be more money in page views for reporting gossip than important news.

This is a call for more responsible interest sites because they have the real power and profit the most from being responsible.

There aren’t many sites like thePTDC for their respective industries for 3 reasons:

1. It requires a very precise and advanced knowledge about an industry or interest.

Many people who have an advanced enough knowledge of a subject to build a successful interest site are busy. The sites that are started begin and end as a side-project, never having the required time and resources dedicated to them to flourish.

2. Selling out early is an attractive proposition.

Since day 1 I’ve run thePTDC by myself. I have never had a partner or employee (I do work with 15-20 contractors each week around the World).

Many who build these types of sites will sell out early. I know because I did, but fortunately I recognized it before it was too late. It’s easy to make a couple hundred thousand dollars by patching together an Ebook, attaching some upsells, and tacking on some affiliate promotions for a 75% commission. Add in a couple banner ads and a nice living can be made without very much work.

Money can blind a person to what’s really happening. Knowing that, at any moment, an email can be sent and tens of thousands of dollars (or more) can be made by choosing to promote somebody else’s work can lead one down the wrong path and harm a reputation with an audience who previously adored you.

But the power, and value, is in the distribution network now, and increasingly so in the coming years. Don’t you think that Nike would be interested in owning the biggest collaborative blog for trainers on the net?

3. It’s Really Hard

I’ve no experience in the media. Most people who develop sites don’t. Consistency and quality is everything. To publish new content weekly that meets very high-standards is excessively difficult for the average person without a full editorial staff.

A single article written by a guest contributor for thePTDC goes through the following steps (approximate hours in brackets):

  1. The contributor writes the article (1-5 (?))
  2. My editor receives it. Conservatively I’d estimate that 90% of articles are turned down right away.
  3. Almost all potential pieces get sent to me for consideration and I reply to my editor with comments (30 minutes)
  4. There’s generally 2-4 re-writes per piece. This takes my time, my editors time, and the writers time (2-7hrs)
  5. The piece gets professionally edited (1-2hrs)
  6. The piece gets sent to me where I format for the web in addition to work on positioning, images, and all meta tags (1-3hrs)
  7. Promotion starts (1-2hrs)

As you can see, a single article multiple times a week requires 3 coordinated specialists for an average of 12hrs.

This might be par for the course for many news outlets, I don’t know. For a regular person who has a full-time job, it’s close to impossible.

Society hasn’t changed and it’s not doomed. It’s the same as it always was.

What has changed is the emergence of an opportunity that I urge you to take advantage of. Large bureaucratic news and media sources have proven slow or resistant to adapt.

So many of these large sites are still messing around with silly paywalls and advertising. What they should be doing is systematically segmenting their audience in order to serve a smaller subsection with value opening up multiple new income streams.

This leaves you with an opportunity. Take advantage of this pendulum swing and build a smaller site in the absolute sense that has the ability to do some good while at the time building a business that is more efficient, simpler and makes you more profit than you thought possible.

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