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Facebook Helps Regular People Make Money In The Internet Economy


The technology sector sometimes gets criticized for killing jobs by creating robots and algorithms to replace human labor. There is a new kind of work in tech that Facebook has made possible. Through this work, regular Americans without a computer science degree can actually make a really good living. NPR's Aarti Shahani has the story of these jobs, and why some of them are already in jeopardy.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: First, let's meet Tim Lawler. He weighs about 230 pounds and likes to lift.

TIM LAWLER: If Bruce Willis and The Rock had a baby, it would look like me.

SHAHANI: Lawler is in Florida. I'm in California. And note - Facebook pays NPR and other news organizations to make live video. I can see from Lawler's Facebook profile that he's a towering bald man with a dark brown beard that's graying in the middle. His job is something you've likely never heard of before.

LAWLER: What I do is make memes and content on Facebook for people's enjoyment and pleasure...

SHAHANI: And for some cash.

LAWLER: ...And I make money that way.

SHAHANI: Call him a meme master. Memes are, of course, the carbs of the internet - dumb, funny pictures that keep you going and may or may not be good for you. Lawler used to work as a manager for a Harley Davidson shop. When his store got bought out, he lost his job. He was 40, a tough time to make a career change. When he first got on Facebook, it was just for fun, he had a regular account. Then he decided to try out a special feature to make something called a page. He made one in honor of a personal passion - skulls.

LAWLER: I think that skulls are just like a universal symbol of our - either mortality or immortality. And every person that's ever been around in this world past, present or future has a skull.

SHAHANI: Turns out it was a stroke of brilliance. Lawler built a base of 350,000 fans who like skulls. Another page, his most popular one, was called Unlawful Humor. And one day a friend gave him a tip.

LAWLER: Look, I'm making money off of a page of similar size, you should try it.

SHAHANI: Here's how the money part works. You know how Google and Facebook get paid to post advertisements in your search and your news feed? Well, Tim Lawler posts ads too in his Facebook page. This is a standard practice for businesses on Facebook. Just like you might share a baby picture, he'll share a link, could be for a juice company or a news site. Every time a fan clicks on that link, he gets less than a penny, but the money adds up. Lawler made anywhere from a couple hundred dollars a day to a thousand. Last year he raked in about a hundred thousand dollars. He showed NPR proof of his earnings. Lawler felt he had a knack for this work when he saw celebrities sharing his memes, like this one about Barbie and Ken.

LAWLER: They're in like a household setting, like a little play house, only Barbie's on the toilet and the meme says Long-Term Relationship Barbie.

SHAHANI: People who create pages the way Lawler did are a small but vital part of Facebook's business. If Facebook is a publisher, these are the writers who post, reliably, multiple times an hour. Facebook wants businesses to make pages because that gives the platform traffic. NPR interviewed more than two dozen people who operate pages on all kinds of topics - 1980s movies, diesel engines, mommy support groups. Maureen Camfield, a nurse, started a page for the brokenhearted.

MAUREEN CAMFIELD: It was called Broken, Beaten, and Scarred But Not Giving Up.

SHAHANI: We all hear about how the internet is full of bullies. Well, Camfield says there are so many lonely people online who just want a friend. You can build a real business by being kind. She'd sometimes refer a fan on her page to the National Suicide Hotline and get a message in return like...

CAMFIELD: It helped, you made a difference. I wanted to kill myself that night and I didn't.

SHAHANI: These page owners sound like Facebook success stories, exactly the people CEO Mark Zuckerberg would want to brag about. While algorithms do take away jobs - boring, repetitive jobs - Facebook is making jobs and creative ones. This is the promise of technology, but that is not where this story goes. Tim Lawler.

LAWLER: October 25.

SHAHANI: You remember the specific date?

LAWLER: (Laughter) I absolutely do.

SHAHANI: Lawler was sitting on his couch last year posting to his Facebook pages, and all of a sudden he got a stream of notifications.

LAWLER: This page has been unpublished. This page has been unpublished. This page has been unpublished. This page has been unpublished. And I was like oh, my God.

SHAHANI: More than two dozen entrepreneurs tell NPR they received similar generic messages. They'd violated Facebook's Terms of Service, and their business was shut down. The notices did not state what the person did wrong exactly, and if there was a way to rectify the situation to get the page back. They read like form letters. Users already know this Silicon Valley giant that's woven its way into the lives of more than a billion people can be a black box, silent about how it makes decisions. For some, that's unsettling. For people like Tim Lawler, it's a matter of livelihood. When he opens his Facebook account, he can still see his old pages, the rest of the world can't. It makes him sad.

LAWLER: Because there's nothing happening over there. All that's happening is I'm losing likes that I built.

SHAHANI: Now, you could say tough luck. Facebook is a free app, people don't pay, and they're not entitled to use it. But Tim Lawler and others - they did pay. Facebook makes money by sticking ads in your news feed. You've likely seen that. Facebook also makes money by charging page owners to promote a post. Pay five bucks to get your post in more people's news feeds.

LAWLER: Facebook is asking for my money. I will then in turn give them some money.

SHAHANI: Lawler paid thousands of dollars in ad money. He thought it was a kind of safety valve. When you advertise you get a point person, a human at Facebook. Lawler tried reaching his human, and even got a callback which he missed.

CHAD: Hi, this message is for Tim. This is Chad calling you with Facebook ad support. Give me a call today...

SHAHANI: Chad from the advertising team left this voicemail while Lawler was driving. Chad didn't leave a number and didn't call back, Lawler says. His emails to Facebook went nowhere.

CHAD: And I will await your reply. Thanks so much, and have a great day.

SHAHANI: Facebook declined to discuss the specifics of any case, citing privacy concerns, but the company did say last April they posted a new rule online stating that users have to get special approval from them to post advertisements. And Lawler got dozens of notices that his account was sending out spam. Lawler says he didn't know about this big new rule, and the notices he got are just little pop-ups that disappear in seconds. If he were in bad standing, he figured, someone in the advertising department would have told him and they would have stopped taking his money. Lawler has not been able to get the company to speak with him about his case. I ask him.

Imagine you're talking directly with Mark Zuckerberg...


SHAHANI: ...CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

LAWLER: Mark, hire me.

SHAHANI: He doesn't even let me finish the question, and he doesn't speak to just his case. He wants to talk big picture.

LAWLER: You need someone that's been on the ground, that's rolled their sleeves up, that's done the dirty work.

SHAHANI: You think you're that guy?

LAWLER: I know I'm that guy.

SHAHANI: Whether he is or he isn't, he's got a provocative idea - that Facebook needs a better way to listen to customers, small advertisers who aren't the superstars, the Coca-Colas and Kim Kardashians of the world. For now, Lawler is selling coffee mugs with skulls on them to get by. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

SHAPIRO: While she was reporting this story, Aarti decided to start a page on Facebook for people to share their concerns, it's called TellZuck. So if you use Facebook for work and have an issue, tell Aarti your story at facebook.com/tellzuck. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.