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The Limits of Minds

cedarbranchesDec 19, 2018, 7:41:37 PM
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@ottman @mark

Before I begin, I feel it is important for context to be clear what my background and experience is, as I’m not just some average user speaking from ignorance. In fact, I formerly served as an Editorial Policy Analyst (FTE) at Microsoft Corporation for a number of years.

Specifically I was responsible for applying the Microsoft Creative Acceptance Policy (as well as Competitive Exclusion Policies) that applied globally to Microsoft.com MSN.com and all Microsoft publishing partner sites including Viacom and Fox Sports. I was personally responsible for making updates to these policy documents and for ensuring that policies were applied appropriately through a variety of internal processes. I have a deep and expansive knowledge related specifically to content policies, content and advertising delivery systems, global business strategy, marketing, and editorial. Additionally, I have years of experience as a social network marketer across a variety of platforms.

Like many, I witnessed years-ago the fate of MySpace, which proved unable to effectively control it’s site (ad) content, becoming the nail in the coffin for MySpace. The site became overrun with poor quality (spammy) advertising, which greatly reduced user trust in the MySpace brand. Once Facebook opened to the public, it was an easy choice for users to move to a different platform and abandon MySpace completely, leaving it bankrupt.

MySpace serves as a great example of the importance of having effective content controls and paying close experience to the effects of development and business strategies on the overall user experience. Social networking is an increasingly competitive market these days and it is likely we will see a variety of newer ‘MySpaces’ perish over the next months/years as users migrate to platforms that provide quality platforms that most effectively meet their needs.

In the early days of Facebook, it was great. As a less developed platform, there were few content controls in place, making it a virtual playground for users who sought to utilize social media to share, connect, and even to attain a level of viral success that could not be attained without spending a small fortune for advertising. Obviously paying for effective advertising is well out of reach for most individuals in the world.

I’ll never forget when Facebook first implemented a limitation to the number of friends a person could have (limiting them to 5000 friends). For a while, their Site continued to suggest friends, even for users who had reached the new limit. Apparently, the limitation was not quite enough to solve whatever issue they were combatting, as they later made it a policy that users were not allowed to actually meeting people on their ‘social networking’ service. Users found attempting to contact people they did not know personally began to be punished for sending requests, even if it was Facebook that had suggested that they in the first place.

This behavior is subtly and extremely important as Facebook found themselves actually punishing their users with ad-hoc limitations, at the same time their original design and messaging had entrapped users into a racket that they themselves had created. It became a clear case of inauthenticity exposed, where public messaging was out-of-sync with policies and site development. It created a situation of non-trust of the Facebook brand by users.

As a side note, Facebook also later began penalizing users for asking people to ‘like’ or ‘share’ content, labeling such posts as ‘spam’. At a certain point, Facebook became aware that when people received likes/shares on their content (note that this is a fundamental design feature) that the users would receive a dopamine release and would actually get addicted to this. Facebook ultimately used this knowledge against the public. Despite a design that encouraged users to seek ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, Facebook began punishing users who did so, as the behavior Facebook had previously fostered became a violation of their own Community Standards policy.

So here’s where Facebook has gone after many steps down an irreversible path. They turned on their users, they set false expectations up front (both through how they described their site; claiming it was a social networking site when it was actually an advertising platform), they designed a system that did not work to control content and then penalized users for their own poor choices in site and policy design. Obviously the need to control Site content and how Facebook went about it has many more twists and turns, but the net result is the same… policies and development regularly created to limit users and users then penalized based on poor policy choices and site design. Is it any wonder people have come to distrust and even despise Facebook and Zuckerberg?

When I arrived here at Minds.com I was so pleased to see a network that had the new-and-open freedom of a Facebook long-gone. According to Minds, I would be rewarded for generating activity on their platform and for helping them to build their network size by attracting users with my own original content.

As a starving and independent artist, this was a great relief. Most other sites had finally figured out how to stop the average person from generating ANY vitality to their content for free (through programmatic and policy limits, complex content delivery algorithms, and other methods).

Minds seemed to provide a level playing field (in exchange for a mutual benefit), opened up (and even encouraged) the use of their network to have their voice be heard without any suppression.

I bit. In December of last year I put a major focus into marketing on Minds.com over other Sites (including Facebook). Minds had won my heart. Since then, I have spent a VERY significant amount of time, personal effort, and strategy into making the most of the opportunity that Minds had provided. I spent many hours generating unique and original content of quality and sharing it broadly on Minds. I did everything reasonable within the specs of Site design and without violating any policy, either in spirit or in letter for many months. I attracted many users to Minds and was able to also build a fair amount of audience and engagement with what I shared.

For a while, Minds was the clear choice for where to direct my focus, reach was up… engagement was up… conversion was up. (It’s critical for me to place my energies where they have the most potential as it will determine if and when I get my next meal. Yes my own livelihood is actually on-the-line here). Know that I have spent countless personal hours creating and working to contribute to the future of this site; one I’d still like to believe in (especially considering MY OWN significant investment).

Well then something happened. As would be expected, Minds was inundated with spammy content, bots that began to dominate the feed with content that was not original, lacked in quality, or was even downright illegal. Considering the MySpace example, I definitely understand that there was a serious issue to address and Minds began to take noticeable actions, first on the back-end, then later with the implementation of a ‘limits’ paradigm.

The spirit and intention of the limits Minds had launched were communicated to the public (barely) and the messaging was clear enough. These limits were never intended to punish users, but to stop spammers and bots (of which I am neither). They even put some friendly messaging into the system so that when users reached their limits, they were informed as to why and encouraged to ‘TRY AGAIN’ in ‘x’ amount of time.

Unfortunately the tool that was intended to stop spam and bots was not very well thought through or implemented, and certainly not communicated well. Those who are running bots were not slowed down (as they could just create more accounts and push each to their limits) and initially the number of fake accounts (viscerally) seemed to boom, compared to the number of accounts that actually had people behind them.

At the same time, many users were immediately unhappy with limits being applied. Some of the best content producers on Minds fled immediately, seeing that the writing was on the wall. We had received the bait-and-switch, told that our content and reach would not be controlled, told that controls were only created to battle bots, and told that it would help site content quality.

Marketing effectiveness was immediately degraded. Overnight, daily reach dropped by upwards of 60%, engagement dropped by nearly 50%, and acquisitions from Minds.com dropped to almost zero. What had been a sensible platform to share content on and use for grassroots marketing immediately made a lot less sense. Note that at the same time, even with significant limitations on reach, Facebook marketing was growing (hand-over-fist) in engagement (commonly over 50%) and acquisitions (for the identical content).

As an individual who was counting on Minds to keep their word (at least for a little while) and who had invested so much into building a kingdom here, I was tossed into uncertainty. How could I possibly continue to grow if Minds would limit me at every turn? Nonetheless, I know what it is like to play whack-a-mole fighting spammers, and extended a new level of trust to Minds (offering now the benefit of doubt).

I chose to continue investing my time and sharing my original content here in the hopes that the team would realize their business mistakes and would correct them quickly enough. All businesses are going to get learning curves. I would just offer some flexibility while the org adjusted and hope they would come around once the growing pains were surmounted.

More weeks passed and I continued to see marketing effectiveness drop. It seemed as though something had possibly occurred with content delivery balancing, where boosted content was no longer displaying for long enough for users to engage. Perhaps it was just that actual users were becoming scarcer, either going to other networks or just watered down as boosted posts were delivered to spam accounts.

As much as I hoped Site quality and marketing effectiveness would recover, it continued to shrink every day. It took additional effort and a more strategic approach to even make it worthwhile to bother getting on Minds at all. I still did so, even as I watched more good (real) people disappear.

So here’s where the story begins to get more interesting and telling.

Despite many public communications from Minds that content would never be suppressed, it now is… systematically. Despite the spirit of a limits policy being to combat bots, it impacted real people (who were never spammers to begin with), and despite in-program coding encouraging users to ‘try again’ when reaching limits, I received a PM from none other than the CTO of Minds. The message warned me to stop ‘excessively subscribing’ and that if I triggered any more limits my account would be suspended.

Do you see the issues here? As a devoted user, I am being punished for using a platform the way YOU designed it, the way YOU encouraged me to use it (through public messaging and UI). It seems the very spirit of the limits system has already been thrown out to serve WHATEVER behind the scenes motive that is at play. Although I’ve still not broken ANY policies (as far as I am aware) and having only used the system AS DESIGNED, I’m now being further punished for making the most of the platform.

At this point I’m afraid to take even a single step on your platform, as I don’t sit here and count where I’m going to hit your arbitrary limits. Everything that I’ve created here over a year is now at risk by me taking actions on the network. It is a risk to my very livelihood and encourages me to do only one thing… go somewhere else and stop putting my energy into a failing model.

Of course, I would expect that there might be fallout in response to this message. I mean business is complex, emotions can run high, and people can get overly attached to something they’ve invested their work into (like the limits system altogether). I’ve had to think hard about what is at risk before making this communication. Considering the future that Minds is creating, I am realizing that there is nothing at risk at all! Minds is destroying their own future, so there is no future here unless they make a turn.

The biggest pieces of advice that I could offer to the Minds team at this point are these:

1) Get a communications officer into place that is effective and communicate more honestly and transparently with the public. Don’t say its one thing and then have it be another.

2) Align your business units to understand both the spirit and letter of policies so they are not misused, causing mistrust and damage to your brand.

3) Ensure your coding (and in app messaging/functionality) matches strategic company policies to a tee, so as to not confuse your users in the first place.

My future with Minds is now quite uncertain, given the situation (not that you actually care). Some clear communication might make a difference in keeping me enrolled, but it’s probably not worth arguing with some upset dev over. No sense in spending my time advertising to bots and getting punished for pushing against system and design limits. Nonetheless, if this message does result in suspension, so be it.

[Image "Cedrus Atlantica2" (True Cedar... not a Cypress). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cedrus#/media/File:Cedrus_atlantica2.jpg]

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