Digital sharecropping & why you need your own website

WTF is digital sharecropping? Well, it’s the digital version of sharecropping (duh).

Sharecropping is when a person farms on someone else’s land and both share the production. It became quite common in the American South after the Civil War, and it heavily favored the landowners while keeping most sharecroppers poor AF.

Sharecroppers would rent the land and lease the equipment from the landowner – while local laws would often make it so they could only sell to the landowner, resulting in bad deals for the sharecropper. The landlords had ALL the control. The sharecroppers got screwed.

Digital sharecropping is the practice of building on websites that you don’t own.

Websites like Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. Like the sharecropping landlords, those sites have ALL the control:

  • We create content on their sites
  • They own the content
  • They keep the lion’s share of the revenue
digital sharecropping
The modern digital sharecropper, kept down by The Man

It’s building on rented property. The landlord can make decisions that ruin everything you’ve worked for.

Let’s consider Facebook.

In the last year, Facebook earned $51,896,000,00.

(that’s almost fifty-two billion dollars)

In that same time period, the number of daily active users peaked at 1.49 billion. Facebook made ~$34 per active user – meaning us.

We, the people share the updates, pictures and links. We, the people look at & engage with the ads. We, the people create pages and groups, bringing traffic and engagement to the site. We get conveniences and communication. But they control everything and keep all the money.

Business owners can and do get benefits from Facebook’s community and advertising. Plenty of people have successfully used Facebook to grow their businesses. They made pages and bought ads to sell products and services. It’s a good idea to take advantage of all of the people on Facebook. And the hyper targeted advertising is unreal (and as we’ve learned, perfect for nefarious purposes too).

So what’s bad about it, if we can use Facebook, et al, for our own benefit?

These websites change their rules to suit themselves. And we get screwed in the process.

Here’s a quick recap of Facebook history:

  • 2006: They introduce the algorithmic News Feed
  • 2007: They introduces Facebook Pages
  • 2012: They start showing ads (aka Featured Posts) in the news feed
  • 2014: Page owners notice they’re not reaching as many followers as they used to
Facebook organic reach
Imma run with the farming visuals

Facebook Pages started off as a great way to engage with fans. It was convenient, with everyone there to keep in touch with their friends and family anyway. Organic reach, or how many people saw your posts, started off great.

But by 2015 page owners all noticed that fewer and fewer people were seeing their posts. The more fans you have, the fewer of them see your posts. The comicker Dave Kellett addressed it in a nice little comic page titled Why Facebook is a doughnut-stealing mobster that I hate hate hate.

It was always Facebook’s plan to make Pages popular, and then slowly change the terms to benefit themselves. Pages were meant to drive advertising revenue; they just had to make them ubiquitous first.

Reachpocalypse 2014, or how Facebook totally screwed over page owners to make a buck.

Facebook isn’t the only one – any site you don’t own controls the terms.

  • Google changes it’s algorithm regularly; some updates have severely affected traffic & rankings for sites. Usually severe changes happen to sites that are trying to game the system with illegal techniques (called black hat seo; white hat seo is the opposite) but not always. Check out an interesting exchange from a site owner who lost 60% of their organic traffic after an update (starts at 3:51 & goes on for 11-12 minutes).
  • Tumblr just made a huge change by getting rid of adult content on their site. The announcement was made earlier this month on December 3rd and went into effect a scant 14 days later.
  • Twitter introduced Promoted Tweets (aka ads) and Trending Topics in 2010, and an algorithmic timeline in early 2016 (just in time for election season). But their biggest problem has been allowing and harboring hatespeech, with hate groups focused on games and comics making life hell for certain creators (the victims are rarely cis white men). Twitter could enforce their terms of service – but they don’t, making their service unsafe for many. As a small step in right direction, they quietly allowed enabling the non-algorithmic timeline in September.
  • YouTube, like Google, changes its ranking factors from time to time. They went from valuing views to shifting to view duration, which benefited some businesses over others. Of greater interest is their changes to how monetization works. Since 2012, anyone could monetize their channels. But in Spring 2017, new channels had to reach 10,000 views before they could monetize. In early 2018 they tightened the rules further, requiring a minimum of 1,000 subscribers and 4000 hours watched in the past 12 months.
  • Facebook has changed their algorithm to de-emphasize Pages as a response to being a tool for Russia and Nazis. It’s a good idea but it also means businesses’ organic reach will be even less – so they’ll have to pay more to advertise.
  • Patreon, who actually don’t steal content and let creators keep most of their money, still fucked up last year when they changed the terms to make fans pay for transaction fees before backing off. It was creator-friendly, where they weren’t saddling the creators with the fees, but it pissed fans off because a simple $1 donation became $1.38. It strongly affected small donors over larger ones. While they recognized and reversed their position, they can still make changes in the future.
  • Or, any website can take Myspace’s route and go from relevent to irrelevant in a heartbeat. Or stop existing like Toys R Us, for any number of reasons.

The point: Websites can change their terms or stop being viable. What’s fine today may not be fine tomorrow. Never put all of your eggs in someone else’s basket.

Don't build on rented land.
No one is Neo on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or YouTube.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use these websites. The operative word is use – take advantage of what a site has to offer without becoming completely reliant on it.

All the artists who make adult commissions and got all of their customers on Tumblr got screwed. They have to start from scratch and survive without a significant source while rebuilding their traffic (and hoping that former clients are ready for new commissions). It’s an unenviable position – but it could have been avoided.

Here’s a quick rundown of things that are NOT a website of your own:

  • Your Facebook page
  • Your Tumblog
  • Your Instagram profile
  • Your Twitter profile
  • Your Patreon page
  • Your Ko-Fi page
  • A Blogger blog
  • Your Behance portfolio
  • Anything where the domain is something like yoursite.someoneelse.com
  • etc.

You get the idea (and if there’s an option I didn’t mention that you’re not sure about, ask in the comments). 

The ONLY way to protect yourself is to have your own website – and make it your hub.

And by ‘hub’ I mean that you should:

  1. Use social networks and their ilk as tools to find & engage with new fans/customers.
  2. Direct them to your website, where you have more or deeper content.
  3. Get their names and emails before they leave your site.

I know that email is old school. And believe me – I hate email. But email is not going anywhere and almost everyone has an email address.

The man who got more ‘Hell yeahs’ out of more people than anyone else in history.

And email marketing works. Compared to other methods of marketing, it delivers the most bang for the buck. For every dollar spent on email marketing, the average return is $44.

If you could spent $10 and make $440, would you do it?

Hell. Yeah.

That’s my take on digital sharecropping, aka building on rented land, aka not being in control of your destiny. Use social networks, instead of the being used by them.

Expect follow-up posts on websites & capturing emails in the coming weeks.

In the meantime do you have a question or experience to share? Leave a comments!

Steve Austin photo by Mandy Coombes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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