Monday, March 23, 2009

The New Facebook: Faucet to Firehose

Facebook seems to change to something "new" every few months or so, I think I should clarify. This is the (as of now, latest) change where now they have a list of "News Feeds" on the right, with all friends' updates in the center, and the popular items on the right. Basically, Facebook is trying to be like Twitter. Here's the problem: Facebook isn't Twitter. They're completely different kinds of social networks. Twitter is a firehose, and as such, I select who I am "following" on Twitter with care. If someone is too noisy or prolific, I don't subscribe to them, and I don't lose anything by it. Facebook, on the other hand, aspires to be the repository of all of my social contacts. If I know someone, I would like to add them as a friend on Facebook, and not need to worry that they will inundate me with events. Facebook used to allow its users to fine-tune the types of stories that appeared in our home feeds. If we wanted to see every note that a friend posted, we could crank "notes" up, and see them all, and if we didn't want to be bothered by changes in relationship status, we could crank that all the way down, and never see them. We could also fine-tune our preferences by the individual, so if so-and-so published too many links, we could turn those down for that friend in order to prevent those from clogging the feed, but still let a few trickle in, in case they started to get interesting. Facebook was thus ideally configured to allow me to maintain a stream of information from each of my friends, and they did a pretty good job of balancing the flow of information such that it wasn't overwhelming. Until, that is, they decided to copy Twitter. Twitter makes no attempt to filter or balance anything. If you're following someone on Twitter, you see everything they post. Because that's what you're asking for: that's what Twitter is for: listening to people. If you don't want to hear what they're eating for lunch, don't follow them. Facebook knows about this social difference, and they've accommodated it. Sort of. For a long time, they've had "Friend Lists", which are basically tags that you can apply to this or that friend, which you can also use to restrict or allow permissions to see certain sets of content. I have a list of "Family" and a list of "BSF" friends, and a list of people who only see my "Limited Profile" and so on. Facbook now features these lists on the home page at the top of the left-hand column. At first, when you click on a list (or the master list of all friends called "News Feed") you see everything that everyone on that list has posted. It can be a lot, but let's say that Suzy is on my "Seattle" list. That means that if I click the little "X" button on one of her stories on the "News Feed" list, I can still click on the "Seattle" list and see her items along with my other Seattle friends. But it's still all or nothing. I no longer have the option to see "some" of her stories, or even "certain types" of stories from her. It's all, or nothing. Just like Friendfeed. Now, I like Twitterand FriendFeed for what they do: they're firehoses. If I miss something, it's not a big deal. It's transient information, and its relevance has an expiration date. When Suzy posts pictures of her nieces, though, I don't want to miss that. [Note: Suzy is fictional] But leaving her in my main feed means that I have to put up with her constantly posting links to this or that tear-jerker website or deal that she found on socks on Amazon. Facebook took away my granularity, and I'm afraid that it's become much less useful as a result. Most people never knew about the ability to customize their feeds by tuning their friends in order to see "less" or "more" from them, but they benefited from the system anyway, because Facebook was automatically balancing their feed content for them. No longer. Now, they will find that they miss a lot, simply because they didn't log in or hit refresh in time before it got buried under wall posts and status updates from less important friends. They'll feel bad about silencing their frineds entirely, so they won't do it, and most people won't maintain different friend lists for different sets of friends. One of two things will happen with users: Facebook is hoping they will spend more time sitting in front of their browsers hitting "refresh", sifting through the garbage manually, hoping to catch the stories they care about. I think users will find Facebook to be too much of a time leech and less useful than before, and spend less time there as a result. They'll still log in occasionally, but they won't count on it the way that they did before.

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