Social Networking

Facebook Trims Fatty Interface, Builds Tagging Muscle

The world’s largest social network — stuffed to the brim with 250 million members — is checking itself out in the mirror, wondering how it would look in a slimmed-down version. However, it may also be putting on some weight by adding a feature that’s popular with a certain much-hyped short messaging service that employs a fat little blue bird as its logo.

Facebook is now experimenting with Facebook Lite, a leaner-looking interface that went live Thursday in the United States and India. The stripped-down version, designed for areas of the world with slower Internet speeds that hinder downloads of graphics-laden pages, removes some toolbar areas from your home page, including those for status updates, links and images. White space dominates areas of normal Facebook pages that would show links to applications, what videos and photos friends have posted and some advertising.

Your Attention, Please

The pilot Lite program (Facebook calls it a preview and is seeking user comments) came on the same day that the company also said it would be slowly rolling out the ability to tag friends in status updates, using the “@” symbol, much like Twitter users are now able to do to let followers know they’re being referenced or mentioned in tweets.

“Friends you tag in your status updates will receive a notification and a Wall post linking them to your post,” wrote Facebook engineer Tom Occhino on the Facebook Blog. “They also will have the option to remove tags of themselves from your posts. We hope that tagging your status updates and others posts from the publisher will enable you to share in a more meaningful and engaging way, and connect with even more people.”

Targeting Third-World Phone Growth

“The biggest complaint about MySpace right now is the busy backgrounds, the annoying music, and the junk people put on their pages,” said Lon Safko, social media entrepreneur/consultant and coauthor of The Social Media Bible. “Not only is it annoying, but all that rich media needs time to download, even with broadband, and if you are still on dial-up — which a surprising number of people still are — it’s excruciating and prohibitively slow. Facebook is seizing on their competition’s short comings and turning them into benefits.”

While slower broadband speeds in underdeveloped countries and certain rural areas of the U.S. would seem like natural targets for Facebook Lite, Safko’s consultancy research also shows a reliance on mobile phones in parts of the world where most people can’t afford notebook computers or broadband. “Most everyone can afford a cellphone, especially when they are subsidized by the telephone carriers and are often free. In villages where clean well water is often not available, cell service is,” Safko said. “They use cellphones to access the Internet, retrieve their emails, text message, interact with their Facebook pages, and often even talk on their phones.

Mobile usage and advertising is the fastest growing technology today, more so outside of the U.S., and is the dominant device used for social media and trusted networks. “So with the lack of broadband, the overwhelming increase in mobile access, and the general complaints about their competition, Facebook has done it again by streamlining their offering.”

Sincere Twitter Imitation or Improvement?

Adding the “@” tagging system a la Twitter wouldn’t be the first time Facebook has appeared to reach out and co-opt a rival’s features. An example: the FB status update became “What’s On Your Mind?” after Twitter’s rise in the media and the focus on its “What Are You Doing?” tweets.

Citing smackdowns like Burger King vs. McDonald’s, Quizno’s vs. Subway and Microsoft vs. Apple, “you just can’t beat copying a successful business model,” Safko said. “It’s been said that by Facebook adding ‘@’ tagging to their repertoire, it’s another case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. My software has been flattered way too many times by both Apple and Microsoft right down to my design of ‘tool-tips’. In business, it’s who can bring the best products or services with the best features and benefits to the marketplace most effectively.”

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