You wouldn't know it from looking at him, but 53-year-old Polish immigrant Wojtek Wacowski is one of the most successful political operatives on Facebook.
For years he's hand-built the "Being Liberal" brand from a simple experiment into one of the most popular political pages on Facebook, on track to reach over 1 million unique likes by this Spring and featuring satellite accounts on Twitter and Tumblr. He hit 10,000 followers in the first week. Despite boasting a following larger than most major corporate brands, it's all been managed by Wacowski and a handful of volunteers, run out of his New Haven home and local coffee shops. And while Being Liberal has almost half the likes of gigantic liberal site the Huffington Post, until a profile last year in the New Haven Register, he was known only as [W].
So how did Wacowski build this underdog into a winner? A simple, easy-to-relate concept, smart decisions and big tools. At its root, Being Liberal tapped a niche Wacowski argues is being ignored in mainstream politics.
"Basically, I wanted always to reclaim back a certain pride of using a self-description 'I am a liberal, and I am proud of it.' I think that due to a really concerted effort of the conservative side, starting from probably the 70s, the word liberal was framed almost as an insult. And it became so radioactive that no politician in the U.S. willing to be elected will ever call themselves 'I am a liberal.' ... I am very sorry that it disappeared for a long time from the American political scene."
Wacowski saw an opportunity to create a community that sought to reclaim the liberal legacy of John F. Kennedy — shirked for a long time by a Democratic Party moving to the middle. This post from 2011 is what he describes as the "original" Being Liberal meme:
It's that simple branding and message statement which created the opportunity for his page to grow. For example, Being Liberal didn't dilute its appeal by chasing daily news updates. Similarly, Wacowski believes that today's Democratic Party "degraded the politics by following the polls."
Much of Being Liberal's growth over the next few years was pulled off by focusing on the kind of posts which generated shares and discussion beyond the immediate Being Liberal community. Wacowski argues that the focus on Facebook likes is misplaced; the really important part of any social media strategy is engagement.
"Facebook is one giant world garden" with "little fields" populated by conservatives and liberals, says Wacowski. The winner of coming political battles can be partially predicted by who is able to network these pages together most effectively. By partnering with smaller pages that can be useful organizing on a local level, as well as geo-targeting posts to maximize their usefulness, pages like Being Liberal can have a disproportionate effect. Wacowski points out the small "Living Blue in a Red State" page as an example of this, noting how it inspired other pages on a state-by-state basis.
And if these networking efforts keep develping, they could pull votes. "Even if we can sometimes deliver a hundred votes more, it counts ... lately, every vote counts. Just motivating people to go out and vote, I believe ... we can make a difference," Wacowski says.
That's not to say networking on Facebook doesn't have pitfalls. What pulls up on your news feed is no accident — it's a deliberate move on the company's part to push more sponsored content at the average user. Just two months ago, Being Liberal fell victim to the Facebook's adjustments to its the hidden formula that decides when and where content shows up on the news feed (possibly the same ones that recently cut back sites like Upworthy). The result was a big cutback in Being Liberal's level of user engagement:
And it's not just Being Liberal that got hit. No one "familiar with the FB insights will attribute that to an organic change in the audience behavior," says Wacowski. And to be clear, he's not grudging, acknowledging that Facebook is a for-profit company with its own monetization goals. Jan. 11 affected many other "passion pages," which saw massive hits to their engagement numbers. One major issue for page administrators is that Facebook is that the company is keeping silent about the changes, which are clearly designed to sell more ads.
It's by no means the death of the page, which is still seeing very high levels of engagement (600,857 "talking about this" at the time of this writing). That's far better than other pages which boast higher numbers of raw likes but lag behind in engagement, which Wacowski calls "paper tigers." Many of those are corporate pages which inflate their likes with paid advertising, but he also sees a general problem with the way right-wingers utilize social media platforms. For example, Being Conservative has nearly three times the number of likes but has just 159,328 "talking about this." Wacowski credits his higher engagement numbers to interesting debate and commentary in the threads on his page, pointing out that many conservative pages exist to hawk political merchandise. He might not be so far off:
And while he understands the importance of the youth vote come election time, Wacowski says that liberal activists would be remiss to forget that plenty of older people are just as liberal as millennials.
"Engaging a younger demographic is important for achieving political goals ... Based on what I see, and based on the demographics of my page, basically being young doesn't make you a liberal the same way being old doesn't automatically make you conservative. I have a lot of extremely active fans who are in their 60s. They say that the older they get, the more liberal they are."