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Do You Really Like That Story?

On April 17, 2011, the New Yorker‘s Facebook page read, “Jonathan Franzen’s essay on David Foster Wallace and solitude will only be available to our Facebook friends for one more day. Click on the ‘Fans Only’ tab to read.” Such a simple status was met with 67 comments expressing confusion, disappointment, anger and appreciation. Insults were thrown back and forth between Facebook users. Franzen was referred to as some form of “narcissist” on several occasions. Earlier in the week, the New Yorker posted on its blog that readers would have to visit its Facebook page to view Franzen’s piece; “This week only, if you ‘like’ The New Yorker’s Facebook page, you can read Jonathan Franzen’s piece ‘Farther Away,’ about his journey to the island of Masafuera, in the South Pacific, which appears in our current issue.” Just as The New York Times put up a paywall a few weeks earlier the New Yorker had put up a “like-wall” for online readers, and Jonathan Franzen’s story was its trial piece.

Like-walls have unique advantages that are especially helpful in marketing and advertising. First, when a user “likes” a page, all of his friends can see that he is a fan. In addition, once a user has “liked” a page, updates from that page will show up in a user’s newsfeed (a page which displays current and popular “news” from friends, status updates, pictures, videos, comments, re-posted articles, etc.). This means more interaction between the individual user and the page he is a fan of. But it doesn’t end there — when a Facebook user “likes” a page, the page gains access to that user’s information; how much information is dependent on the individual users’ settings. Organizations use this information to collect demographic data and then tailor their material accordingly. In a Neiman Journalism Lab article published on March 8, 2011, Megan Garber wrote, “It’s not just about how many people are liking (and, you know, Liking) your stuff; it’s about who’s liking it — according to age range, gender, location, and language.”

Like-walls are not new to journalism. People magazine has a section on their Facebook page that is for “fans only,” which is a designation only earned by liking their page. According to Todd Wasserman’s April 11, 2011 article on Mashable, “The New Yorker Puts Jonathan Franzen Story Behind a Wall of Likes,” Self magazine recently hosted an event which was exclusively available to those who liked its Facebook page. Many other businesses are known for giving special offers to the their Facebook fans. What’s unique about the New Yorker is it already has a paywall in place but a magazine that would usually charge for works such as Franzen’s, was offering it for free, but it was placed behind a like-wall and was only available for a limited time. Later, readers had to visit the New Yorker’s website and pay to view it or purchase a print copy.

In Wasserman’s article “The New Yorker Puts Jonathan Franzen Story Behind a Wall of Likes,” New Yorker spokeswoman Alexa Cassanos stated that the goal of the like-wall was not only to increase the New Yorker‘s fans, but also to “engage with people who want to engage on a deeper level.” Meanwhile, Damon Kiesow of The Poynter Institute pointed out in his April 11 2011 article that “the goal is to inform current subscribers of the publication’s Facebook page and to let non-subscribers know about the story’s limited-time availability on Facebook.”  Kiesow also reported the New Yorker might use like-walls in the future. “The New Yorker has no specific plans to put content on Facebook regularly, though the success of this week’s effort will play a part in that decision… If the Facebook test works, they will look at trying other stories in the future,” he wrote.

It seems that just may happen. Currently, the New Yorker‘s Facebook page has almost 235,000 fans.  On April 18 2011, Graeme McMillan of Time reported that the like-wall had gained the New Yorker 16,000 new fans though the results are of course muddled by other variables such as normal Facebook traffic. Nonetheless, a page with 235,000 fans saw an increase of 16,000 fans in just one week.

The relationship between news and Facebook is evolving.  A recent piece on Journalism.org, “Facebook Is Becoming Increasingly Important,” stated that all but one of the top news websites received some of their audience from Facebook. The article also stated, “If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next.” The like button celebrated its first birthday on April 21. In the year that its been around the like button has become applicable in multiple ways within the media industry.

Of course, just like there are ways around the Times paywall, there are ways around the New Yorker’s like-wall (for instance, someone can re-post the articles they have access to). If this is where journalism is headed, some changes will need to be made and media organizations will have to face tough decisions about what to put behind paywalls, what to put behind like-walls and what to offer for free. The obvious success of the like-wall with Franzen’s story makes more widespread use of like-walls seem like a possibility in the future of journalism.