How Facebook can one-up Twitter

I wanted to take a few moments and try to understand the hysteria at Facebook’s changes, what it means, and what users should really be concerned with. I am not a Facebook apologist. I use Facebook, I use Twitter and even get lulled into using emerging sites like Twine. My persistent bias is that social media platforms are generally up short in regularly explaining how they solve new communications problems.

First, is Facebook’s redesign of two weeks — the so-called twitterization — a bad thing? These are the sorts of data that would be helpful in evaluating the change:

  • Number of people invited to join, before & after
  • User activity on the site, before & after
  • User time spent on Facebook, before & after
  • Polling of a random sample of Facebook users

Nobody has this data but Facebook; some outside group could trouble with a random poll, but why bother? Facebook has this data, and it’s understandable that it might be too soon to release it. They can wait for a month after they quietly make improvements and the hysteria subsides.

The hysteria

The hysteria? Countless Facebook groups, blog posts, twitter tweets griping about the change. But Facebook users are a fickle bunch. Justin Smith edits the group blog Inside Facebook, for an audience of facebook developers and advertisers; his opinion certainly should carry some weight. Considering the change, he noted last week that every major Facebook change in the past has been followed by mass protests — and then, mass acceptance. He concluded: “the loudest voice will be the way users actually change the way they use the service. We wouldn’t be surprised to see the time spent and pages per visit increased similarly over the coming year – but the data will tell the tale.”

But amongst the Hyster-o-sphere, I’ve yet to find anything that specifically itemizes what is wrong and, more important, why it is irreparable without going to the old interface. Tim O’Reilly, head of the eponymous computer publishing empire, posted on Twitter that Dare Obasanjo, a Microsoft program manager, and prominent blogger,  “nails what is wrong with the new Facebook design.” But Obasanjo’s blog post is not complaining about the design, but rather about Facebook’s corporate strategy.

Indeed, founder Mark Zuckerberg (according to emails leaked to ValleyWag) betrayed his youth in mangling the concept of “disruptive technologies” and snidely dismissing the concerns of users. What he could have said, more diplomatically, is that customers focus on short-term needs, and the company best understands long-term needs (and it’s possible he did, and the quotes we’re getting have been ripped from context.)

Should we even pay attention to the polling app that says that 94% of Facebook users polled are giving it a thumbs-down, even if that 94% represents a million users? No, not even if Michael Arrington of the influential TechCrunch blogs about it. This is a joke of the poll: it only asks users thumbs-up or thumbs-down and does not drill down into specific concerns. The demographic data that a Facebook app could access– and which could help make this more of a scientific poll — is unused.

What the change means

Facebook obviously realized that Twitter was getting insanely popular. And it was easier for Facebook to provider Twitter functionality than vice-versa.

Facebook needed to centralize the status/link/note posting to make it easier to do. It is now, and it’s much friendlier than Twitter. As to the people “who can’t find anything anymore,” they need to explain what they can’t find. I hear the same complaint from people struggling with Office 2007, and that’s just a transition thing.

Indeed there are some specific problems with the design. The 160-character limitation has suddenly been thrown at users: when you enter a link, your description can be 160 characters and no longer. This is an obvious nod to twitterization. But this is one of the most glaring limitations of Twitter. And it now annoys users because they see no reason for it. It would be fair to show users where the 160-char cutoff is in the text entry box, so they can format their text appropriately. Encourage, but don’t mandate brevity.

People are complaining about the increasing levels of noise– more seemingly irrelevant posts from friends. This is bound to happen in any communications system, and especially now that Facebook has made it easier to post updates. I gave it a name last week: flam (with the backronym Friends’ Lovingly Annoying Messages). Flam is like spam, but it comes from your friends (or PR agencies), and there is no ill intent implied. Both Facebook and Twitter need to recognize what flam is, and then explain how they can help users mitigate it.

The Bigger Change Ahead

Obviously, Facebook should give the appearance of caring. What they should do is work harder answering specific questions. Facebook indeed has a page listing questions about the change. It lists just ten addressing how to do things (and two more addressing why). Certainly, this can be made more dynamic and interactive — a question a day (or an hour?), addressing specific user concerns.

They need to do this in order to prepare for the real tidal wave:

Ad toleration.

The trick for any commercial channel is to introduce sponsorship at a level that users can tolerate. On Twitter, commercial voices have joined the fold slowly and steadily. The commercial use of Twitter has been welcomed by virtue of Twitter’s A-List being heavily concentrated with social media marketers. This has paved the way for commercial accounts (such as Dell, Zappos) to offer coupons through Tweets, and this gets celebrated as an exemplary use of Twitter. Still, it’s not all smooth sailing: a social media charity drive by Proctor & Gamble for Tide detergent was dismissed by Silicon Valley Watcher’s Tom Foremski, who called it a “human botnet” and AdWeek’s Brian Morrissey, who called it a “feel-good social media bribe.”

Facebook has an even tougher challenge. They have long-established promotional accounts that they call Pages I call faves (entities that you follow, but don’t follow you). But they have long held off allowing these Pages to promote through users’ news feeds. Facebook announced in the recent redesign that they’re going to introduce this shortly. Users are now complaining about how to deal with the apparent increase in flam from their own friends. Now they’re going to be asked to tolerate the ads.

I don’t have a solution to Facebook’s deployment strategy. But I do have one for users. My friends (and faves), we are constantly complaining about a world of information overload. But Facebook is only the medium. It’s really coming from us: you and me. What we need to do is enable us and our friends to properly markup what we feel is important for our network from that which isn’t. I call this Semantic Social Media Construction. It’s up to Facebook, Twitter et al to implement this. But we at least need to know what to ask for– and stop crying about layout upgrades, for heaven sakes.

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