Thoughts on the Facebook Redesign

[Note: this was written after the first of the eleventy billion Facebook changes that began in 2009.]

When I took the tour of the new Facebook homepage design, before the redesign was rolled out to users, I think my initial reaction was “great! can’t wait!” or something like that. Conceptually, or as described on that “tour” page, the new features seemed like they would enhance a user’s ability to clean up the incoming stream of information—the filters, in particular, seemed a good idea.

But in practice what I see right now is a serious reduction in the user’s ability to clean up the incoming stream (at least without the use of the Facebook Purity greasemonkey script). The lack of customization options for the stream section in the middle of the main page is troublesome to say the least. Although the “show more about…”/”show less about…” options/settings sliders from the previous incarnation of Facebook never really worked that I could tell, in this new incarnation that sort of filtering is completely gone—replaced with all-or-nothing filtering in which the only customization options that appear in the stream section are simply to “hide [username]” with no ability to hide certain types of information about/posted by that user.

More problematic is the “highlights”/right column and the inability to customize anything in that area—not by user, not by type of highlight, not by popularity, etc. As far as I can tell, you can’t even outright remove something from that area. Why don’t I like this? Well, for one thing don’t tell me what I will like or won’t like, but if you’re going to tell me what you think I would like, then at least let me help you. See, for instance, every social networking/social media/commercial site that attempts to tell me what I might like. It’s not that difficult to code, unless the underlying data structure of the app is a trainwreck—which it seriously doubt that it is. Instead, I think it’s a willful disregard of the needs of the user.

That “willful disregard” comment seems to be Zuckerberg’s style; see the recent terms of service debacle. Vallywag (and tons of others) has been on the story; see Vallywag posts such as “What Was Mark Zuckerberg Smoking When He Redesigned Facebook?” (which also discusses the ways in which you cannot customize the bend-over-and-take-it stream of information), “The Facebook Faithful Turn Against Mark Zuckerberg’s Redesign” (key quote: “One might argue that Zuckerberg didn’t do the design to please the lowest common denominator of users, but instead was trying to win over the cognoscenti of Silicon Valley, who have been buzzing nonstop about Twitter. If so, he missed that target badly, too.” and also see this good post by Dare Obasanjo on FB/Twitter connection), and “Even Facebook Employees Hate the Redesign”.

In the the “Employees” post, the question is posed: “Why isn’t CEO Mark Zuckerberg listening to users?” and answered: “Because he doesn’t have to.” This sort of willful disregard of user preferences, needs, and desires, and the belief that because you are popular or loud (or in Zuckerberg’s terms, “disruptive”) you are therefore right, is quite similar to the ways in which I find some undergrads operating in the classroom—and not the particularly good undergrads, either, but the ones who have spent their lives in a social and intellectual vacuum and who have yet to try out those critical and abstract thinking skills.

Of course, even if Facebook loses half their users (which they won’t), they’ll still have 85+ million remaining. But in a site that is free, valuation is based on users and their eyeballs. When those numbers decline, valuation declines. If Facebook were a publicly-traded company, maybe this would be a bigger deal. But it isn’t, and Zuckerberg has his money, and Facebook has its users. As with all Facebook-related kerfuffles, this will blow over and the number of people using Facebook will not precipitously decline. So instead of sounding the death knell for Facebook, or continuing to point out that Zuckerberg is no Jack Welch, what if we try to find something to learn from all of this?

Although if it comes to pass I will not give Zuckerberg credit for his foresight, what if this outrage/uproar about information saturation within the world’s largest social network actually causes users to take responsibility for the information they provide? If there’s one thing I’ve been smacked in the face with (aka “learned”) while teaching Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information this term, and by teaching other classes populated by students in the 18-24 age range, it’s that there’s not a lot of acknowledgment of responsibility with regard to the information they generate and how it makes it into the datastream (YMMV). However, Facebook actually gives the user all the options necessary to appropriately manage information output. No, they’re not the easiest options to get to, because it’s not like anyone or anything points it out—the nature of the business means that outbound information defaults to always-on—but if a Facebook user spends some time with the Settings->Privacy settings->News Feed and Wall and the Settings->Application Settings->[application]->Edit Settings->Wall options, the signal-to-noise ratio could be increased (more signal, less noise).

Basically, the Facebook application framework is like the knob on an amplifier. The new Facebook stream is the amplifier at 11—pretty damn disruptive. If you—the user—care about the eardrums of your audience—your friends—you’ll turn it down. If you don’t, though, and your audience starts going to the acoustic venue down the street, you can’t really, logically, blame Facebook.

I realize that it’s a bit of a leap to go from “everyone hates the new Facebook home page” to “paradigm shift in the way people take ownership for their information and actions online,” but wouldn’t that be kind of cool?

Edited on 3/22 to add: Basically, I’m more Tim O’Reilly than Robert Scoble although not terribly far from agreeing.

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