Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The NEW New new Facebook

As pretty much anyone who is reading this blog already knows, Facebook changed today. Facebook has garnered a reputation of changing itself fairly often. But today was the most substantial change of their UI (user interface) that I can recall. And, as anyone who’s logged into Facebook today knows, most users are unhappy with this substantial change. I only saw one or two posts from people who actively like the new interface. And then there is a small but hardy group who are annoyed by those complaining. They seem indifferent to the change itself and argue that no one should complain about something that is free to use. Is that fair?

According to its homepage, “Facebook is free... and always will be.” When Netflix changed its pricing structure earlier this year people were outraged and made their indignation known to the company. Just this past week Netflix distributed an apology letter from their CEO and in the same breath announced they are rebranding their DVD subscription service as Qwickster. Again, their customers were annoyed. The company has lost large numbers of subscribers and cut its subscriber projections by a million users. But Netflix customers pay to use the service. So can you really compare Netflix with Facebook?

Facebook may be “free” upfront. But you absolutely pay a price to use it. Facebook makes money by selling ads. But not just by feeding ads out en masse to anyone and everyone. They use the very information you post on the site to target you. They have the ability to sell advertising to very specific demographics based on your personal information that you willingly enter into the site. They also keep tabs on things you post and even monitor your use of other sites. They KNOW what you want to buy and make big bucks off of that. Of course we still see lots of ads that are completely irrelevant to us. My favorite is the “Mom finds one simple trick to lose weight/eliminate wrinkles/make big money in the stock market.” (Evidently, there are lots of very innovative moms out there.) But rest assured, Facebook is watching you and your tastes and habits and making money on them. Why do you think there are so many changes to their privacy policy all the time? So Facebook may be free in terms of money, but there is a cost to it.

So, you are paying to use Facebook with your information. In return, you are getting a service. Usually, if you are paying for a service and are unsatisfied with the quality of that service you have three options: Keep using it anyway; Stop using it; Complain to the service provider. A friend of mine commented today noting that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. That is, there is really no good reason to NOT complain if you don’t like the changes Facebook has made. Who cares if it’s free? And remember, you are still giving them something that they need so they have a vested interest in not alienating millions of their users (ah hem, Netflix).

It’s been noted plenty of times that every time Facebook makes modifications to its UI people complain. In general, people don’t like changess they didn’t ask for explicitly. But companies -- especially social media companies -- have a vested interest in staying ahead of the curve. Look what happened to MySpace/Friendster/AOL/Prodigy... shall I go on? So clearly, Facebook is trying to keep itself relevant. Like Netflix, they knew very well that some people will be pissed off when they implement their change. But the comic below describes the change Facebook has made as a “mild inconvenience”.

But if the change they’ve made undermines some of the basic reasons people use their site (as I believe it does), well then the users have a valid complaint. A good litmus test for this kind of thing is to check back in a month and see where people are at. Most of the mild changes that initially cause an uproar simmer down after a few weeks once people get used to them. The difference here is that the new UI is forcing people to consume the very information they come to Facebook for in a totally different way. A month from now if people are still actively aggravated, Facebook ought to take note.

Now, is the new UI really all that bad? The info is still all there. But, in my opinion, it’s fragmented and overly complex. One reason for Twitter’s popularity is its simplicity. There’s really not much to it. What you see is what you get. There’s no algorithm deciding what you see and what you don’t see like in the new Facebook. And while Twitter sometimes does make changes, they’re smart about it. Perhaps Facebook was trying to “pull an Apple” with a “game changer”. The problem is, you need a real visionary to make that work. And even Apple has screwed up that strategy. Just look at the new version of Final Cut Pro X. Overall, Facebook does need to keep its 750 million+ users happy. If they don’t, they could become the next MySpace/Friendster/AOL/Prodigy... shall I go on?

So to those who are annoyed by the Facebook redesign (a group I happen to belong to), I say keep up the noise. They certainly won’t do anything about it if no one makes their opinion known. And the folks who insist that no one should complain because you don’t pay money to use Facebook should take inventory of how much personal data they’ve freely given to the site. When you add that up, simply providing a good user interface sounds like a screaming deal for Mark Zuckerberg.