Facebook Subscriptions: Overdrive for Journalists?

Facebook now offers SubscriptionsThough I understand its appeal, I’ve never found Facebook compelling. What I’ve taken to be its core assumptions—that one’s world is divided into friends and everyone else, and that all your friends are friends in exactly the same way—just don’t work for me. That’s why I’ve so far stuck with Twitter and its follower model and dallied with Google Plus and its concept of differentiated social circles.

With Facebook’s introduction yesterday of Twitter-like subscriptions, though, that could change. And even if it doesn’t make a Facebook aficionado out of me, it could make the network much more useful professionally to many other journalists who already use it for personal reasons.

As a writer, I’m interested in having people read my work. But while I like my readers, most of them are not and will never become my friends. Even Facebook recognized a practical limit to friendship, restricting one’s maximum number of friends to 5000.  So as a vehicle for journalists, the original Facebook model left them stuck in first gear.

Until yesterday, Facebook’s solution to this problem was Fan Pages, now called simply Pages. By liking someone’s page, a facebook user could follow that person without being a Facebook friend, and the page owner could have an unlimited number of followers.

Though the Pages feature makes sense for organizations, which can’t otherwise have a Facebook presence, for individuals, it meant splitting your identity in two and managing both parts separately. In describing Pages to journalists a few months ago, Vadim Lavrusik described this split as a benefit:

Though many journalists already have personal profiles on Facebook, public Pages enable them to build a professional presence, opening them up to readers beyond Facebook’s 5,000 friend limit and, importantly, helping them to separate their professional presence from their personal on the site.

One of the problems with Lavrusik’s pitch is that it aimed at mass-media journalists with large numbers of fans. For most journalists, particularly in B2B media, the limit of 5000 friends would never be a worry. Moreover, separating the professional and personal so absolutely was an awkward, Solomonic solution. The personal and professional in journalism are merging; what we need are tools to manage our merging identities, not a broadsword to cleave them.

Facebook’s subscriptions is a far more elegant and flexible option. Rather than maintaining two separate identities, you now can simply choose what to share with the public and what to keep among true friends. Plus, you can shelter your humble and delicate ego from having to make the decision to establish a separate fan page that only a handful of readers might follow.

As with every new feature Facebook introduces, this one is sure to spawn plenty of confusion. Though its four-page guidance for journalists helps (PDF), there are doubtless plenty of kinks still to work out.

I can’t say with certainty whether subscriptions will transform my own view and use of Facebook (though if my daughter who refuses to friend me sees subscriptions as a way to keep me happy, it might). But for many journalists who already use Facebook enthusiastically for social purposes, the new feature may offer huge professional benefits as well. As a personal branding tool for journalists, Facebook may have just slipped into overdrive.