Facebook is facing an identity crisis. Zuckerberg & Co. have let themselves turn green with envy over the latest Silicon Valley phenomenon, Twitter — and in the process, have set out to mutate Facebook’s own DNA by bringing Twitter-style updates into its service. The result has been that Facebook has lost its intimacy, and is instead flooding us with a lot of white noise.

When I first wrote about Mark Zuckerberg, his young startup was called TheFacebook.com and he had just moved to Palo Alto, Calif., from Boston. The site had signed up some 2 million students at 430 colleges. Fast-forward to today: Facebook has a hundred times as many members, including parents and grandparents of those hyperactive college students. What was once a convenient way for college kids to hook up has now become the newsfeed of our post-Google lives.

Facebook’s rapid growth is, to put it bluntly, an astounding achievement. Yet as the company stands on the verge of greatness, it’s facing an identity crisis. Zuckerberg & Co. have let themselves turn green with envy over the latest Silicon Valley phenomenon, Twitter — and in the process, have set out to mutate Facebook’s own DNA.

Facebook, by its very nature, is mostly about our past, sometimes about our present, but very rarely about our future. Being symmetric, it’s important that we have some sort of a prior relationship with a person in order to friend them on Facebook. Your classmates, neighbors and the folks you met at a party — these are all relationships from your past. Facebook doesn’t really allow you to discover new people — and that has been the part of its charm (and utility).

On Facebook, photos, videos, and news items about folks in our social graph (address book) allowed us to keep in touch with tens of people all the time without so much as dialing a phone. We immersed ourselves in each other’s lives, serendipitously. By developing technologies that provided context to the information coming from our network, Facebook saved the most elusive modern commodity: time.

Facebook’s recent redesign brought Twitter-style updates into its service, a move that’s been met with considerable opposition from Facebook members. Twitter allows almost anyone to follow (or discover) anyone else based on their celebrity, interests or location. Twitter is about infinite affinity circles. Facebook is not. By allowing a torrent of status updates into our Facebook pages, the company has destroyed what made it special: its ability to construct a constantly updated newspaper about us. With Twitter-like updates, the site has lost its intimacy, flooding us with a lot of white noise. It’s become less personal — and less social. (Read: Facebook COO’s attempt at justifying the recent changes and spinning them as great advertising opportunity.)

Back in 2005, when I profiled Facebook for Business 2.0, Sarah Williams, a freshman at Berklee School of Music in Boston told me, “What makes it (Facebook) so much better than Friendster is that it’s your peers rather than a random assortment of people.”

Maybe this blast from the past is something Mark, Chris Cox and some of the smart young people who make up Facebook should think about.

  1. Right on, Om! I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been bugging me about Facebook’s latest changes, but you’ve put your finger on it. Facebook’s charm is in making connection easier with people you already have connections with, and that kind of connection seldom needs to be in real time. Twitter is meant to be much less, and it is, but that’s OK.

    1. Kelly, thanks for your comment. It sums up my feeling of frustration about the recent redesign and changes. I think when companies force themselves to change their DNA, the changes are always fraught with risk. I hope FB does figure out who to simply deal with the shift.

  2. Rohit Nallapeta Wednesday, April 8, 2009

    You have said it! Amen. FB should try and improve their features on personalization and customization rather than blatantly imitating a competitor and calling it new design/feature. I still think their app platform is a gold mine and there could be useful utilities that can be built and monetized. Social circles can also be productive somehow FB doesn’t see this point.

  3. It’s interesting insight Om!
    I’m not fun of facebook and twitter but it was definitely more unique before changes.
    Actually for now all that feed in FB looks annoying for me

    But again facebook users stuck to their profiles and “eat” these changes

    The question is that next generation users will be using something other.

    and let’s face it old facebook users want some improvement but for new users this all noise will look just strange and they would love to use something other.

    bwt, Thanks for great post and ideas!

  4. I am not sure, but is it not possible to un-follow FBtweets (the “What am I doing right now” update) from people on my friends list (I think I see a ‘Hide’ widget someplace). I know for sure that you can never get updates from anybody who is not from my friends list, so that’s not a problem.

  5. Interesting take. I’m new to Facebook, having resisted it for ages since I perceived I wasn’t in its target market. I still see it as “based on the past,” surely because I don’t what I’m doing. ; ) Something to consider is the increased use of Facebook by social media marketers. To them, depth of relationship is not as important as increased eyeballs on blogs, web site, etc. Facebook, in this sense, is a “mini-LinkedIn,” which really only ever paid lip-service to the idea that connections should be “real.”

  6. Hey Om,

    I totally understand where you are coming from and as I’ve accepted friend requests from people I don’t know, my feed has become much more cluttered. I’m thinking about your issue and what resonates most is that the information isn’t as relevant to you anymore. What that means to me is that Facebook has failed at developing an effective “Highlights” feature or that there isn’t an option that you can click on that says “relevant to me”. Essentially, the automated filter process.

    Would gaining visibility of Facebook’s automatically generated feed help solve this problem? In regards to the internal identity crisis I totally agree but that’s something that the company is going to need to resolve quickly. Regardless of their identity crisis though would a feature change (such as the one I mentioned), resolve your complaint?


  7. Facebook is horrible now. I have discontinued using it for advertising and personal uses. Your right about it becoming less personal and social, thats why many of my friends also stopped checking their facebook, its changed far to much for my liking. Great post!

  8. I see change is inevitable.

    Facebook has become large enough for people to build their social graph, preferences, relationship filters and content filters. People can create their own identities within Facebook. The choice is yours: private circle or public party, communication channel or content aggregator, personal space or a professional profile.


  9. I haven’t really noticed it but now that you’ve mentioned it, you’re probably right. I’m alright with the new interface though. A little irritated when they first changed it but I’m getting used to it. I guess they’re just trying to keep on top. Keeping the updating of people you know as well as having a section whereby you can know more people?

    They probably just haven’t found the best interface to keep everything user-friendly, such like you get to choose to stick to your own social circle and the ‘getting to know more people part’ isn’t too distracting but still there nonetheless as an option.

    I believe they’re just working to improve Facebook to expand to meet more people’s requirements and keep things fresh and new lest they start dying out like friendster.

    We just have to adapt to it a little. Afterall, they can’t please the world.

    Regarding the identity thing, I think ‘working to meet more people’s needs and staying at the top’ isn’t such a bad identity either.

  10. Om,

    Interesting post. I actually like facebooktweets :) It just made facebook more interesting. Is this beginning of new communication? Do you think other social media sites will join bandwagon? It would be interesting to see.

    In the meantime happy tweeting!

    -Janak Mehta


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