Thinking out loud: What it meant to be a “fan” on Facebook

Yesterday’s announcements from Facebook’s latest developer conference, F8. dropped news of major changes that have rattled online privacy advocates (and everyday users). I am among the rattled, and will get into the privacy implications of Facebook’s Open Graph in an upcoming post.

First though, I’d like to ruminate a bit on a more seemingly innocuous change implemented by Facebook recently, the move from “Become a fan” to “like” in the lexicon of Facebook fan pages.

If you didn’t already know, Facebook fan pages are in theory, Facebook profiles specifically for brands, organizations and public figures. If you have a personal Facebook profile and you’ve ever “become a fan” of something on Facebook, whether its Mr. Peanut, Jason Statham, or “Not being on fire” well, that’s a Fan Page.

The point of these pages, in theory, was to keep personal profiles and brand profiles separate. The interface is slightly different than personal Facebook profiles for both users and administrators, and for marketing professionals there are more bells and whistles on Fan pages. But until recently, the use of Fan Pages was never limited to brands and organizations. The aforementioned “Not being on fire” fan page and similar gag Fan pages (like Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Hat) have existed since fan pages were introduced.

The recent introduction of Community Pages for Facebook, seems to be a way to discourage the creation of gag pages by users and to insure that brand marketers control the use of Fan Pages exclusively.

Mashable cites an e-mail from Facebook to online advertisers, explaining the meaning of the change:

Facebook is alerting advertisers to the impending change by explaining that “Like” links offer “a simple, consistent way for people to connect with the things they are interested in … in fact, people click “Like” almost two times more than they click “Become a Fan” everyday.”

Little wonder in that; the word “fan” implies a level of engagement and commitment that the word “like” doesn’t quite cover. There’s a lot of things I “like” that I’m not necessarily a fan of. Of course more people would choose to click “like” more than “Become a Fan,” because being a fan tends to mean a little bit more to people.

Not to mention the fact that the “like” button was way more ubiquitous than “Become a Fan” button on Facebook. You could “like” a picture, a news item, someone’s stupid status update. “Liking” something on Facebook essentially implies a user vaguely acknowledges the existence of a piece of content, but doesn’t mean they’re passionate enough  about it to potentially opt-in to regular communications about it. (which is what Fan Pages are about, really)

But  that’s exactly what Facebook is counting on.  Here’s more from the previously mentioned memo:

Like’ offers a simple, consistent way for people to connect with the things they are interested in. These lighter-weight actions mean people will make more connections across the site, including with your branded Facebook Pages. We believe this will result in brands gaining more connections to pages since our research has shown that some users would be more comfortable with the term ‘Like’. The goal is to get the most user connections so that you can have ongoing conversations in the news feeds of as many users as possible.

I think of the times I randomly click on “like” for a piece of content I’ve scanned on Facebook. In some cases, “liking content” on Facebook is essentially saying “I’m too lazy to actually leave a comment on this, so here you go.” It’s the lowest level on engagement I can muster.

By making “like” and “Become a Fan” equivalent on Facebook,the more passive user behavior of “liking” something is now essentially an opt-in to a brand’s communication stream. Maybe you’re not into Coca-Cola enough to “Become a Fan” but surely you “like” it, right?

It’s pretty shrewd. Facebook is quite transparent that this change was made to increase user interaction with Fan Pages (now the exclusive domain of brands) but it is interesting to me that the implied exclusivity and discrimination of the term “fan” was seen as a liability for Facebook interaction. Traditional marketing values the fan above all others. In the case of Facebook, being a fan meant that you care just a bit too much.

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