When Mark Zuckerberg invited 30 million people to his brand-new book club on Jan. 2, the Internet reacted hysterically: Sales of his first book pick, Moisés Naím’s “The End of Power,” skyrocketed overnight, jumping into Amazon’s top 10 books from its previous rank of 45,140th. The Atlantic predicted that the book club presaged some kind of big move into commerce. At the New Yorker and the New York Post and everywhere in between, pundits prepared to anoint Zuck “the new Oprah.”
But the new Oprah he is not.
See, when Zuckerberg actually hosted the first book club “meeting” — a Facebook Q&A yesterday with the book’s author, Moises Naím — he faced a problem familiar to far more plebeian bookclubs: Hardly anybody showed up. (And of those who did, few had actually read the book.)
“We’re kicking off our Q&A now with Moisés Naím, author of The End of Power,” advised whatever poor Facebook employee runs the “Year of Books” community page. “As a reminder, please keep all questions and comments relevant to the book.”
Among the 137 “questions” that followed: several requests for a pirated PDF of the book, a conspiracy theory involving Saudi social media and the price of oil and a photo of a Maltese wearing a frilly dress, along with many more on-topic, but still fairly stupid, questions.
“Didn’t get the book yet,” one user commented, in fairly typical fashion, “but it definitly [sic] looks interesting.”
To be fair, of course, there were also a few provocative, thoughtful questions from people who are clearly really interested in sweeping political trends, and there was some valuable — if brief, and rather shallow — discussion about topics like religion and money and war.
That said: 137 questions? A mere 240 comments?! All told, fewer than 200 people participated in the chat, despite widespread media coverage and the popularity of Zuckerberg’s own Facebook page. To put those measly numbers in perspective, The Washington Post has published eight Facebook posts in the past eight hours that got that much interaction, if not much, much more.
So what exactly is going wrong in Zuck’s much-touted club? Both the book and the pace of the book club may have something to do with it: “The End of Power,” while well-reviewed, isn’t exactly a sexy beach read. (“From boardrooms to battlefields and churches to states, being in charge isn’t what it used to be”!) It’s also 320 pages long, which means — since the club starts a new volume every two weeks — you’d have to read 23 pages each day to keep up.
There is, however, another far more technical problem here — and that’s more interesting, for our purposes. Simply put, thanks to its ranking and filtering algorithms, Facebook just doesn’t make a good place for this type of Q&A. For starters, those algorithms guarantee that the transcript is hopelessly jumbled by default, ordered not chronologically (as it would be on Twitter) or by community votes (as it would be on Reddit), but by some more abstract and randomized measure of quality.
The algorithms also mean that — though Zuckerberg advertised the book club to his 30 million followers, and though a quarter of a million people signed up for it — many of those people probably never saw the news of the Q&A with Naím in their feeds. Facebook had, in essence, hid its own news algorithmically.
This is, of course, a problem that every publisher and user faces on Facebook — its whims are both all-powerful and unknown! — but it’s ironic to see Zuck himself suffer this way. Several club “members” even wrote that they would have participated in the inaugural book club “meeting,” but they didn’t know it was happening.
“For some reason (algorithm?) this post only showed up in my notifications two hours after it was posted,” one woman complained. She had a good question for Naím, too: How will the power of algorithms change?