Facebook: Too Big to Care?
It seems every move Facebook makes is greeted by users with derision in one form or another. Changes to the user interface result in a cacophony of complaint. New features like memorials to deceased members or suggestions to reconnect with long-lost acquaintances often receive ridicule. But time and time again, users stay and membership grows. Does Facebook really care what you think of it?
10/30/09 4:00 AM PT
A tweet and a status update tell Facebook's story after a week of very unsociable social media slip-ups for Mark Zuckerberg's company.
The tweet: "Dear Facebook: Stop sucking, you're making Twitter look reliable."
The status update: "[Name withheld] knows FB has its downside, but I just got friended by somebody that, to me, makes Facebook totally worthy [sic] it!!!"
And there you have it. For every time Facebook makes you want to toss your netbook or smartphone across the room, you hear from a long-lost somebody in a way that makes the folks at Classmates.com hurl their netbooks and iPhones across their offices, asking each other, "Where did we go wrong?"
Anger in ALL CAPS
It has been a trying and somewhat strange week to be a friend of Facebook, much less a friend on Facebook. The world's biggest social network is testing the patience of a lot of its 300 million members by once again changing up the design of its home page, swapping out Live Feeds with Status Updates with News Feeds -- just as those same members were finally getting used to the last redesign. The newest shift is a byproduct of the company's summer acquisition of FriendFeed, which was all about real-time updates, but Facebook seems to be a bigger fan of facelifts than Joan Rivers.
It didn't take long before my FB friends were passing along shouted opinions of the change. "FB IS BLOCKING ALL YOUR FRIENDS NEWSFEEDS EXCEPT 250 THEY CHOOSE," said one, who helpfully included ways to edit the options so we could return to a semblance of what passed for normalcy on Facebook. The comments section at the Facebook Blog, meanwhile, continues to run against the changes, as they did with previous ones: "Facebook Execs, we are not going to give up. This new layout SUCKS and you WILL change it back. I'm not asking you, I'm TELLING you!" "Dear Facebook: I have given this a try and been open minded -- I hope you are too." And so on.
Maybe the change affected the algorithms running Facebook, but it seemed older status updates were sticking around longer than usual at the top of my Profile page. And there were times when updating on the new version of the Status Update page wouldn't take at all. Was it something I typed?
Reconnections and Memorials
All that would have been enough to keep the commenters and blogosphere snarking until sunup. But Facebook also decided to tinker with Suggestions by urging members to "reconnect" with those who aren't updating or using their profiles enough to suit FB's tastes -- or rather, the tastes of its software. So I'm getting asked to write on somebody's wall. Nice thought, I guess. So why do I feel like Charlie Brown, being pushed and shoved by Linus and company to go talk to the little red-haired girl? As others have pointed out, maybe some people don't want to reconnect because they just broke up with them? Or (ahem) got divorced from them?
Some tech bloggers had fun with what was actually a well-written post by Facebook's Max Kelly on the company blog: "Memories of Friends Departed Endure on Facebook." It listed the personal inspiration -- the unexpected death of a co-worker -- behind the company setting up a way to "memorialize" dead FB friends. It deals with the issue of profiles that live on after their owners, respecting privacy regarding contact info but allowing survivors and friends to share memories on their Wall. I'm sure it's all due to having kids and approaching a half-century on the planet, but I really have no problem with this. Let the young snark away and enjoy their immortality; real responsibilities and the need to strip away any social media self-involvement lie right around the corner.
Kelly's blog post actually highlights the problems and opportunities now facing Facebook. Obviously it's gotten very big very fast, but the real question may be: Unlike America's financial and automotive industries, which have been deemed too big to fail, is Facebook getting too big to care?
We're talking about a social network that is basically its own country, and an unruly democracy at that: 300 million people who will only be too happy to let company executives know right away when they don't like a new law or some perceived FB intrusion into member privacy. You thought this summer's healthcare town halls were full of rude comments? Did you see what happened when Facebook tweaked its Terms of Service early this year, which would have let the company retain user info -- and possible put it at the mercy of third parties and advertisers -- even after they ended their memberships? Thanks to member outcry and pressure from groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Facebook listened and reversed direction faster than Adrian Petersen does on Sunday afternoons.
But that's the privacy issue. It means potential legal headaches and loss of credibility with members. When it comes to design changes, hinky Suggestions, slow timeline updates and even tech problems, are complaints really registering? Like I said, for every gripe about Facebook, there's some shout-out from a high school buddy who, thankfully, is still alive and wants to catch up. Hell, they may even be living in my neck of the country, as I've discovered with a couple of FB friends. There's also just-being-tapped potential for small/medium-sized businesses to use Facebook fan pages to engage customers and provide themselves a free marketing channel, as detailed in a Los Angeles Times story earlier this week.
What's the News?
Facebook is also turning into a news feed, and by that I don't mean a News Feed. I mean links to news stories and videos from friends who might be like-minded in ideology. And even if they're not on your side of the political aisle, perhaps they're providing a glimpse to another view of a key national/local issue or debate. In any event, it's news curatation/filtration provided by trusted friends and family members, and it's a feature largely untapped to this point by Facebook. (Dear Mr. Zuckerberg: I'm ready for my closeup as anchor of the Facebook News Network.)
Zuckerberg and company are all too aware of the value they are bringing to members, and they also know where the weak links are in the company chain. They've clearly prioritized privacy, but while they can talk until the cows come home in Farm Life about the user experience, I'm not sure they'll be putting member preferences over executives plans on how to grow the company anytime soon.
Members can complain all they want about the changes, but Facebook may be morphing into just another massive tech company; an updated version of Lily Tomlin's classic "Saturday Night Live" skit from the mid-1970s. You may remember the one: She's in character as Ernestine, her nasal and nosy telephone operator, and she's not exactly a customer service role model.
"You see, this phone system consists of a multi-billion-dollar matrix of space-age technology that is so sophisticated, even we can't handle it. But that's your problem, isn't it? So the next time you complain about your phone service, why don't you try using two Dixie cups with a string?
"We don't care, We don't have to. We're the phone company."
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.