Facebook Goes Back to Basics

For the vast majority of Facebook users, there is no notion of Facebook without News Feed and its inevitable stream of political polemics, cat photos, and here’s-me-on-Mount-Everest status updates. But Facebook existed for 2.5 seemingly interminable years without it. Plus, its introduction in August 2006 sparked a strong backlash that, in retrospect, looks weird and out of step with the “progress” of social media, but also predicative of the byzantine privacy maze that would ultimately drive numerous Facebook users away to Snapchat, Tumblr, and Instagram (and yes, I know that Instagram “is” Facebook, technically, but all of its value-add was created by the original Instagram team and it would never have succeeded if mobile-addled Facebook had conceived it).

I began using Facebook in the late summer of 2004 on a Dell desktop running Windows XP (almost everyone at my university had a similar machine; if I were to return today, I suspect I would struggle to find any student who had a desktop running any OS). It’s startling to think about what a cesspool consumer Wintel computing was at that time. Microsoft’s blasé attitude toward security meant that your machine could contract a terminal virus anytime you ventured into the wild west of Internet Explorer. Meanwhile, the wide-open, custom-wallpapered world of MySpace was the default “open” (very much so) tool for networking with friends online, and it possessed a similar “enter if you dare” air. In this context, Facebook was startling. A walled garden with a minimalist look, limited to other university students, and safe: it was an oasis. It was a harbinger of the end of Wintel dominance (which incidentally peaked that year) and the rise of newer, more closely controlled platforms.

Opening up pre-News Feed Facebook took you to your profile, when included some oddities as a fully editable “wall,” a laundry list of your attributes (birthday, last update, etc), and a modest “Quick Search” box in the upper left, which let you find your friends or perform general stalking (just kidding). During this time, the careful pruning and customization of one’s profile consumed most of the time that s/he spent on Facebook.

News Feed changed that in 2006. It was perhaps Facebook’s last innovation, the one that made Facebook look like it does now, and it was very forward-looking for a company that would in subsequent years so often find itself playing catchup. Twitter had been launched only a few months earlier, but wouldn’t really take off for several more years. News Feed was, for ~8 million users, the first look at an easily navigable timeline of status updates and posts. Facebook was now as much about reading the brags of others and it was about bragging on one’s own behalf. It was a flood of information, like a mini-Google for one’s own contacts.

But on the back of Facebook’s runaway user growth in the late 00s and its attendant drive toward monetization, News Feed’s value as a way to get, well, news about friends, began to deteriorate. The informally dubbed, completely opaque EdgeRank algorithm began to prioritize certain types of posts and traffic, meaning that you might never see a friend’s post without having to go to her actual profile. Facebook Ads further muddled the News Feed with “targeted” garbage, making AdBlock all but necessary for viewing the site, but even that slight fix didn’t address the eccentricities of EdgeRank.

Basically, Facebook (in its defense) matured at an odd time in computing. Its explosion in growth neatly dovetailed with the rise of the iPhone and Android. Along the way, it clung to the desktop-born paradigm of having a “profile” while also trying to keep up with new mobile app usage paradigms. It’s funny to look back at it now, but Steve Jobs’ demo of something as completely-taken-for-granted-now as a scrollable contacts list (when he showed off the first iPhone) forced Facebook’s hand. It needed better, more scrollable content in a continuous stream, rather than the discrete profiles that has been its original bread and butter.

The obvious solution to this need has been more focus on images and videos, both from a content curator’s perspective (for Facebook) and a user’s perspective (since sharing images/video feels a bit easier than typing out long textual updates on a mobile device). Facebook has been forced to keep up with both Google+ and Tumblr on these fronts, two networks that came of age once mobile was already in full swing and hence had more time to accommodate image sharing and streams/feeds from the ground up.

Facebook is too late in making these changes. At best, they could have implemented them several years ago when Flipboard launched, since Flipboard’s ability to aggregate your Facebook feed is already a far more progressive view of how one’s News Feed and Wall can be translated into a mobile-friendly, images-first format. Of course, the number of Flipboard users is small relative to the number of Facebook users, so Facebook hasn’t been hurt by its dalliance. And that’s part of the issue: Facebook, like the horrible XP cesspool I mentioned at the outset, has so many users that it can almost afford to be lazy or careless with the quality of its product, since critical mass was reached so long ago and the costs of leaving can be painful.

Today’s Google+–inspired updates to the News Feed – which now permits multiple feeds and greater priority for photos and videos has a ton of minuses for users, including louder/more prominent ads (for the sad souls who don’t use AdBlock) and more opacity in terms of EdgeRank algorithms. But it may have a slight plus (no pun intended), too. With the gradual pollution of the News Feed and the concomitant rise of Graph Search (even if overrated), there may be an opportunity for individual profiles to shine again.

Tired of News Feed? Then use Graph Search to get away and find profiles more easily. It’s perhaps ironic that Facebook’s efforts at mobile-centric modernization may take it back to its roots as a profile-based service (with an assist from its Graph Search), but I think it’s a predictable consequence of Facebook’s monetization. It isn’t part of a wider ecosystem like Google+, nor well-defined by a particular demographic (artists) like Tumblr, so it has to be increasingly forward it how it tries to get revenue from its incredibly varied users. With these stabs at making more money from larger photos and larger ads, user fatigue may continue to rise and drive users back to the profile basics, whether they were there in the 2004-2006 ancient history era or not.

But will that profile-checking occur on Facebook or elsewhere? A major part of Facebook fatigue is that Facebook has too many opaque mechanisms – byzantine privacy controls, EdgeRank algorithms, inconsistent/unpredictable search results – which get in the way of actually comfortably/safely connecting. For many users, these obstacles can be overcome, in the way that enterprise software users often overcome terrible products and continue being productive, at least at some cost. The relative anonymity of Tumblr, or the clean feeds/profiles of Google+ provide real alternatives, but as much as I’d like to hope that better products will win out, Facebook will sputter on, til at least 2023 or something.

-The ScreenGrab Team

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