The Tupperware party that ate your Facebook feed

By Ellen McCarthy

Facebook was originally designed as a place for friends to hang out and catch up, but is now being used to drive sales. Photo / Getty Images
Facebook was originally designed as a place for friends to hang out and catch up, but is now being used to drive sales. Photo / Getty Images

What if the Bible was wrong? What if the End Times aren't all fire and famine and plagues across the land?

What if, instead, it's just a giant Tupperware party? One we can never escape, that closes in on us day after day with a constant barrage of entreaties: Buy my facial cleanser, try this miraculous protein shake, beautify your home with some heavenly scented candles. Join our mission to spread the Word - er, revolutionary lifestyle product - round the world.

And what if - heaven help us - the end is now? Because it sure feels that way on Facebook.

The sweet innocence of a website meant for oversharing and humble-bragging and scoping out your ex-boyfriend's new chick - who is really not that cute - is being washed away in a sea of solicitations.

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Of course, they don't always look like solicitations. At least not at first.

Initially it seems like your old high school classmate is just posting because he's so excited to have found a fitness regimen that really works. And that your second cousin can't contain her enthusiasm for a lipstick that stays on all day! And, come on, who could blame your best friend's baby sister for putting up a picture of her adorable new nail design? Snowflakes! For winter!

But then it happens again. And again. Until your bastion of voyeurism and procrastination starts to feel like a cage being guarded by a red-lipped, zombie-eyed Mary Kay lady. She wants you to be beautiful. She wants you to be fulfilled. She wants you to be one of them.

Because her bottom line depends on it. And her overlords demand it. Because, if you don't come along, the whole house of cards falls apart.

Welcome to the world of network marketing - aka direct sales, aka multi-level marketing (MLM), aka pyramid schemes. I mean, selling. Pyramid selling. Do the names Jamberry, Beachbody, It Works! or Younique sound familiar? Then you've been hit.

There's been a long progression of people using Facebook to promote themselves and companies using Facebook to personalise themselves. This is the latest and most egregious iteration of that.

The business model has been around, in various forms, for ages.

Here's the gist: Person A creates a product and recruits Person B to sell it. Person B sells a little, but mostly just recruits Persons C, D and E to sell, knowing that they'll get a cut of those commissions. The cycle is repeated again and again until the whole alphabet has been tapped. Oh, and usually everyone who gets recruited pays a fee for the honor of getting to sell this life-altering product. Business "start-up kits" frequently cost $300, $400, $500 or more. So Person A makes out nicely no matter how much anyone actually sells.

It used to be that this happened privately, at jewellery and vitamin parties that people (mostly women) attended out of obligation to the friend who invited them.

But today no one needs to have a party. The masses are gathered, every moment of every day, on Facebook. (If there's any upside with this iteration, it's in the solace of knowing that now men must also suffer the inane tyranny of network marketing.)

I lost two inches off my thighs using these magic body wraps! Want to find out how? Comment "Interested" below!

Melissa looks 10 years younger after using our revolutionary serum for only two months!!! Message me and I'll hook you up.

Dieting doesn't work. If you want to see real changes, join my three-week fitness challenge.

It's really awkward for me when it's someone I haven't talked to since high school and they're like, 'Hey, how are you?' and we're just catching up and then they're like, 'I think you would be a great fitness coach.' What? For who? I would be an awful fitness coach. I hate working out.

My brother-in-law griped over the holidays that his Facebook feed is so overrun by Beachbody postings that he refuses to even log on anymore.

In recent months, I've heard from friends and acquaintances I haven't heard from in years. And it's clear that they don't just want to reconnect - they want a new client, a new recruit. Any message that begins, "I want to personally invite you to join -" doesn't end well.

Of course, social media was designed for self-promotion. Look at my swanky kitchen renovation/beautiful children/dog in a Santa hat. Look at my life, my humor, my work. We've always wanted people to buy what we're selling. But until a few years ago, what we were selling, mostly, was ourselves. Now what we're selling is mascara that - hand to God - really does last for 30 hours.

"It's one of those situations where you have a slippery slope," says Devon Powers, a communications professor at Drexel University who studies consumer culture. "There's been a long progression of people using Facebook to promote themselves and companies using Facebook to personalise themselves. This is the latest and most egregious iteration of that."

And it's going gangbusters. In 2014, there were 18.2 million people involved in network marketing, up more than 8 percent from the previous year, according to the Direct Selling Association.

"It's seriously my pet peeve," says Meredith Soleau of Toledo. Soleau owns a social media marketing agency, so she's all for spreading the word online, but not like this. "It's really awkward for me when it's someone I haven't talked to since high school and they're like, 'Hey, how are you?' and we're just catching up and then they're like, 'I think you would be a great fitness coach.' What? For who? I would be an awful fitness coach. I hate working out."

"OK," Soleau always concludes, "I guess you don't really want to be my friend."

Which perhaps isn't fair. Probably they do want to be her friend. They just also want her to buy this incredible new mega-vitamin. The only one you'll ever need!

But eventually the noise subsides, the effusive postings lull.

The bikini-clad before-and-after pics get erased. Jon Taylor, a consumer advocate and industry critic who has studied network marketing for decades, says that 99 percent of people who get recruited never make a profit - "Your odds of gambling in Las Vegas are better" - so they usually quit within a year.

The problem is, before they bow out, they've lured in 10 friends. Your mutual friends - who've seen amazing results!

And who all have a personal invitation waiting for you.

- Washington Post

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