The story I have for you today isn’t about newspaper journalism. Instead, it’s about citizen journalism and how one man’s effort to serve a niche audience has become derailed by the incompetence of a major social media giant.
Yeah, I’m talking about Facebook. I’ve sat by and watched as many of my friends have become fed up with Facebook’s constant tinkering of its format, its not-so-user-friendly privacy issues and the array of spam, timewasters and unwelcome messages that come your way every time you log on.
I’ve been telling everyone that despite its flaws, Facebook is still a vital tool for just about everyone, whether they’re a professional journalist or not. The reason: Your audience is there. Elementary mass communication theory: You have to go where your audience is.
But maybe I’ve been too soft on Facebook. They’re really pissed me off this time.
Meet my friend Scott.
Scott spent years traveling the country and the world as a respected management consultant. Until a decade or so, that is, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
You’re aware, I’m sure, that most people don’t survive brain cancer. I’ve had two very dear colleagues succumb from that particular disease. Scott managed to beat it.
However, brain cancer did take its toll. Scott’s battle left him a bit unsteady on his feet and a lot unsteady with his memory. He recently wrote about his frustration with pulling simple words out of his own head. Unable to come up with the word “broccoli,” he resorted to calling it “little trees.”
He has drawn on his experience as a highly-organized instructor and businessman to develop a number of workarounds and coping strategies. He’s as bright and as friendly as he ever was. More to the point, Scott’s amazingly positive and he has this amazing drive to help other folks who are struggling to come back from similar experiences –not just brain cancer, but also traumatic brain injuries like you might see resulting from a car crash. Or the type of injury that many of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered.
Eager to help others, Scott started a blog in which he writes about some of his experiences and shares ideas about how one might overcome injuries of this type.
Even better, Scott has opened up the subject matter he covers and writes about the importance of staying positive in the face of adversity. As someone who spent four-and-a-half years unemployed, I’m greatly attracted to this aspect of Scott’s work.
Even the business cards Scott hands out demonstrates his outlook on life.
“Full-time optimist.” You gotta love that.
I met Scott during my apartment search here in Southern California: In fact, he’s an old college buddy of my new landlord. He found out that I’m an experienced blogger and instructor and I found out what he blogs about. So we started spending a few hours together each weekend, during which I give him a few tips about blogging and social media and, in return, I get to soak up a little of the positive force that Scott projects.
I probably come out on the better side of that bargain. Scott’s a real pleasure to be around. Given that I’m 2,800 miles from my family, I’m grateful for the time he spends with me.
But most of our time together has been spent teaching Scott how to use Facebook. He wanted to expand his audience, of course, and nearly everybody is on Facebook these days. So it seemed a natural to get Scott up and running, to set his blog up with a “fan” page and to show him the finer points of reaching out to and interacting with his blog readers and potential blog readers.
We hang out for a couple of hours in a McDonald’s in Orange, Calif.
We were doing pretty well, there, for several weeks. Scott was slowly building an array of Facebook friends. His Beyond Injury fan page was up to 75 likes — a respectable start for such a niche topic. People were talking about his posts and sharing them with their own friends. Which is how it’s all supposed to work.
But then something weird happened. Our work was derailed. By Facebook itself.
The first sign something was amiss came a couple of weeks ago: Scott received a warning that he had been friending people who didn’t actually know him outside of Facebook.
Scott had difficulty understanding the complaint. And, in truth, I did, too. After all: Isn’t that the whole point of Facebook? Yes, to renew and maintain contact with old friends. But also to build a network of new friends?
Scott showed me his Facebook timeline. Down the right side of his page was a row of names and pictures, a brief description of how many friends they and Scott had in common and a plea from Facebook to send each of them a friend invitation. Facebook even provided a button for each, right there below each picture. Eager to make new friends, Scott had been dutifully hitting nearly every button.
So the first thing I had Scott do was to cancel as many of the friend invites as we could. I suggested he take it easy for a while and not invite any more friends to his Facebook account or to his blog’s fan page. Let people come to him for a while. Until, at least, Facebook got off his back.
But that never happened. A week or two later — despite the fact that Scott had complied with Facebook’s demand — Scott’s personal account suddenly disappeared from Facebook. It was almost as if he had never existed. Even messages Scott had sent me via Facebook disappeared from my in-basket.
The only thing that still exists — ironically — is his blog’s fan page. Which, of course, Scott can no longer access.
This weekend, I got together with him to try to see what I could do to help salvage the situation. The answer: Not very much.
Facebook sent Scott a message in which it accused Scott of not being a real person.
Scott was kind enough to send me a screencap of that message and some of the follow-up messages. Click for a larger view:
When we hit “continue,” Facebook first gave Scott a Captcha image puzzle to solve. Which Scott couldn’t solve. Why not? Scott’s cancer had been located very near the optic center of his brain. In addition to memory issues, Scott has lingering vision issues.
Neither Captcha nor Facebook gives a user the option of switching to a “vision-impared” version, of course. So Scott was stuck. Until I was able to help him out by solving the puzzle for him.
Facebook then threw up the next hurdle for him to clear. And I was stunned by the sheer stupidity of it: Facebook gave him five sets of three pictures for him to identify: Pictures of his Facebook friends. In order to prove himself a real, live person, he’d have to correctly identify three of the five sets of pictures.
Good Lord. At the moment, I have 2,039 Facebook friends. If Facebook were to give me the same test, I’m quite certain I’d fail it myself. Only a few hundred of those people have I actually met in person. Quite a few of the friends I do know closely have photos posted of themselves that I’d never recognize. Also, quite a few of my friends are from my high school and college days. People can change quite a bit in 30 or 35 years.
Here’s another, even more troubling issue: Facebook has no idea who is actually in a photo. We’ve all had the experience of finding ourselves tagged in photographs that don’t actually include us. It happens to me several times a month, in fact. Because this is so common, Facebook is basically demanding Scott to identify people in photos. And the photos might not even match the name that’s tagged to them.
Whose dumbass idea was this test?
Yet, we waded in. The first set of photos, Scott was able to identify. One down, two to go.
The second set, however, was a problem. Because two of the three photos weren’t actual photos. They were ads that had been posted to that person’s Facebook timeline.
That. Is. Asinine.
In fact, though, we had a clue: Paula. We suspected that the person’s name was Paula. But Scott couldn’t recall a Paula from among his friends. Nor could he identify any of the tiny little faces in that photograph.
Nor were we successful in zooming in on that photo. We could blow it up on Scott’s screen, but it only pixellated further, rendering it unviewable.
So we had to request a “pass” for that one. We had three more groups of photos to identify and we had to get two of them right.
The next set came up. The good news: All three pictures in this set were obviously of the same person. The bad news: The person is apparently active in community theater. He’s wearing makeup in all three photos. And you can’t even see his face in one of the three pictures.
Again, I was just stunned at the sheer stupidity of this test. This is a mighty crappy selection of pictures from which to force us to identify a Facebook friend. At this point, I found myself growing angry at Facebook.
Scott wasn’t really angry. He was merely disappointed. Mostly, because he had no clue at all who this person was. Maybe he knew this person. Maybe this person had friended Scott because he liked Scott’s blog. Either way, these pictures weren’t triggering a name.
So we had to use our last “pass.” We had two more sets of three pictures to view. And we had to get them both right. What we needed now was some luck — We needed Facebook to choose someone that my memory-challenged pal could actually remember. Or someone whose faces would show up large enough for him to recognize.
Here was our next set of pictures.
Clearly, there is one woman identified in all three of those pictures. And the pictures weren’t very bad this time. I was hoping we’d get this one right.
But the challenge to Scott’s memory proved too great. Scott couldn’t pull a name out of his head.
So that was it for us: Game over. Facebook wouldn’t let us in and it wouldn’t let us request a different set of pictures. It also wouldn’t allow Scott to provide more personal information so a representative from Facebook might contact him and discover he’s a real, live human being and not some kind of spam robot.
Scott is still blogging, still trying to help people recover from brain injury and still advocating for people and families dealing with brain injury. And while he can no longer use Facebook to build his audience and to let his friends and fans know he’s posted something new, Scott’s taking it all in stride.
Which I find pretty amazing. Because I’m pretty goddamned upset. Facebook sent a series of vision and memory tests to someone who has vision and memory issues due to brain cancer. It’s not intentional discrimination. But the result is discriminatory, just the same.
He gave me permission to write about this today, but when I asked him how he feels about Facebook not believing he’s a real person, Scott just said:
If I were a robot, I would have a better memory.
That’s my friend, Mr. Positive. You just gotta love this guy. Even if Facebook doesn’t.
UPDATE – 9 a.m. PDT
Something very odd happened just now.
Less than an hour after I posted the blog article above, a friend from Nigeria sent me a Facebook message to ask how I was doing. This gentleman attended the sessions I taught in Abuja last March.
Naturally, I took a moment to compose a warm reply. But Facebook had other ideas: It blocked my reply and gave me this dire warning:
“Please slow down”? I’m using the message function in Facebook “in a way it wasn’t meant to be used”? How so? I’m sending a reply to a message. From a Facebook friend.
I’m not, by nature, a conspiracy-oriented type of person. But I suddenly get a red flag from Facebook, less than an hour after I posted my article about my friend Scott.
I find that suspicious as hell.
UPDATE – 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, PDT
A Facebook representative contacted me last night to inform me they had read my post and unblocked Scott’s account. I’m grateful for that.
They didn’t do much to address how Scott’s account came to be blocked in the first place, though: As I said above, he didn’t do anything wrong at all. His worst sin was that he read all the little messages Facebook put in front of him and he took Facebook’s advice. I feel like Facebook creates a bit of a “honey trap” for him — and for all of us — by asking us to constantly search for new friends and to send out friend invites. But if a recipient of one of those invitations doesn’t appreciate hearing from us, we get spanked for that.
As Facebook becomes bigger part of our lives — many newspapers and web site require you to have a Facebook account before you can comment on their stories — this kind of behavior on the part of Facebook becomes even more critical. And good luck finding someone there to whom you can appeal.
Still, I’m grateful Facebook resolved the situation and got Scott back up and running.