You’ll never hear Facebook sing the praises of dont touch my hair, face or phone when they tout their social-marketing success stories.

But the page, with its simple slogan — “hair face and phone. don’t mess. motto since day one” — is a Facebook force of nature. More than eight million people have liked it. And of those, more than 1.4 million are “talking about this,” a measure Facebook uses to track how many people are actively interacting with a page’s content. By comparison, Coca-Cola’s page, with its nearly 80 million likes, has fewer than a million interactions.

Though I have an old phone and little hair left to touch, I started following the page as a curiosity. I wanted to see how such a simple concept could attract and maintain the attention of so many people. 

Here’s the history: The page launched in 2009. Lest you think the page admins were lying, they really have had the same motto since day one: 

 And all through its first year, posts hewed closely to the same theme: 

Even thru 2012, the fount of phone- and hair-based rage had not yet run dry.

But beginning in July 2013, long-time followers saw a jarring rhetorical shift. Gone were concerns of personal space, replaced by a tout for an instant camera: 

This was the page’s first mention of Awesome Inventions, a London-based online retailer that describes itself as (sic) “Possibly the worlds most addictive online mall.” And for most of July, the page left hair, face and phone unguarded while commencing on an Awesome Inventions shopping frenzy — “Water Fountain Sink! LED Slippers! Message In A Bottle USB! Superman Ice Cubes!!” 

But rather than flagging these posts as spam, a sizable number of the page’s followers accepted the new direction, tagging their friends and sharing each post. A post touting a “Mug with Biscuit Pocket!“, for example, garnered 5,565 likes. Yesterday’s New York Times obit of Pete Seeger, by comparison, earned just shy of 1,700 likes.

Building this sort of audience through Facebook ads would cost a fortune, far beyond the budget of a modest online store. Enter the black market. Popular Facebook pages can be sold in a fairly simple process. The original page administrator receives payment off the Facebook platform and in exchange, adds the buyer as an admin on the page. With admin privileges, the buyer is able to post whatever they’d like, leaving the original audience none the wiser.

On forums like Black Hat World, Facebook pages are openly bought and sold. Sites like FameSwap are even more shameless about it, offering potential buyers a choice of subject area and more detailed statistics to guide their purchase. Sometimes buyers don’t use an external site at all, opting to simply reach out to a page’s admin to make an offer.

With regards to Hair/Phone/Face, I can’t confirm that a sale took place — I reached out to Awesome Inventions for comment, and they didn’t return my e-mail. But it seems a likely explanation. The style of the Awesome Inventions touts matches with posts on the company’s official Facebook Page, and the page had become somewhat dormant before the flurry of activity last July. 

Buying and selling a Facebook page is a violation of the site’s terms of service, which puts any offender at risk of losing their page — and all those millions of likes. And over time, the posts on “dont touch” got craftier. Now, posts linking off to Awesome Inventions are spaced out in between a more regular cadence memes and jokes harvested from around the web. They don’t have anything to do with the page’s original topic, but that hardly matters any more. They’re social media candy. They cost little time and no money to produce, relying on images readily available on sites like Imgur.

Gone is any specific concern about hair, face or phone. Now the whole world of trite sentiment is this page’s oyster. Well, that and the catalog of goods on Awesome Inventions: 

This isn’t a Facebook-only phenomenon. Last week The Atlantic ran a story on the teenagers behind the popular Twitter feed, @HistoryInPics. The feed’s conceit is simple — it aggregates images taken at key moments in history and tweets them out throughout the day. But that’s been enough to capture nearly a million followers in little more than half a year. When the follower count passes seven figures, the duo says they’ll launch their own standalone site in an attempt to monetize their newfound audience.

The feed sparked a great deal of discussion, namely over the feed’s right to “borrow” its images. One of the founders, Xavier Di Petta, justified it like this: 

“The majority of the images are public domain haha,” he responded.

But there’s no photography credit attached, and there’s little evidence that the duo do much checking with regards to rights. There’s skill to the feed’s creation, sure, but it’s purely one of curation. And that’s built on the backs of photographers who aren’t receiving recognition (or compensation) for the work that made it possible. 

@HistoryInPics received this much attention because its posts are catnip to writers and reporters who use Twitter as a water-cooler — indeed, as Alexis Madrigal points out in his Atlantic piece, all those retweets are partly responsible for the feed’s success. But though higher brow, the phenomenon isn’t all that different than what enabled Hair/Face/Phone to be successful: identify an audience, find a schtick they’ll share and watch the followers flow in. And, in time, profit.

One could even take it a step further and note these social media schemes aren’t really all that different than the strategy practiced by some major news organizations today. Rely on a steady stream of share-friendly content (often absent attribution) and pass off sponsored posts disguised as content in order to make money.

Where have we seen that before?