The New Yorker's Failed Facebook Experiment

I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker for over 10 years. I consider it the greatest magazine the world has ever produced but I recognize that part of its appeal is that it makes you feel like a member of an exclusive club of sophisticated Manhattan liberals. There is just enough low-brow, off-beat content to keep the snobbishness from being insufferable, but even as you read profiles of B-list celebrities like Anna Faris, or extensive reportage on tugboats and tugboat owners, you visualize the typical New Yorker reader chuckling ironically in a tweed suit.

Since the New Yorker started a Facebook page, the curtain has been lifted on the New Yorker’s audience. Sifting through comments on the New Yorker’s Wall, it’s not surprising that readers seem, well, pretty normal. If the magazine catered exclusively to Manhattan neuroscientists and avant-garde, found-object sculptor/dancers, it would be a mimeographed newsletter, not a mass-market juggernaut with an 85-year history and a million subscribers.

But it was when the New Yorker experimented with Facebook-only content that New Yorker readers revealed themselves to be as ugly and petty as YouTube commenters. (Well, almost.) The content in question was a long rumination by Jonathan Franzen on the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace, and what it means to be engaged enough with life to choose to keep living. There was stuff about bird-watching and Robinson Crusoe, too, because this is the New Yorker after all. I found the article mesmerizing and touching. Facebook fans, not so much.

Comments fell into three general camps:

1. People who were pissed about the whole campaign in general. (I couldn’t find the fans-only tab, either.)

2. Armchair critics.

3. Ad hominem attacks. (The worst of which was removed but here’s one of the responses.)

4. The sane.

The New Yorker’s participation in social media raises an interesting problem for them, which is best summed up with the over-cited Groucho Marx quote about not joining any club that would have him as a member. The New Yorker preserves its mystique by not making celebrities of its editors (there’s no masthead) and by making readers feel like they’re part of an exclusive club. Now we learn that that club is not so exclusive after all. New Yorker readers are just as petty and flawed as anyone else, regardless of how many degrees they hold.

What should the New Yorker do in the brave new social media world? They could bury their heads in the sand, go back to printing in black-and-white and taking down their website and Facebook page. Or they could slog along, experimenting, taking risks, making mistakes, releasing iPad apps, podcasts, video, and yes even “fans-only” content. Despite the failure of the Franzen experiment (and I do think it was a failure) businesses must evolve or die. So go for it New Yorker, keep pushing forward, no one knows for sure what will or won’t work, there are no social media “experts,” go with your gut and treat us like guinea pigs. Even if I do need to find a snootier club to join.



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