Facebook has confirmed that it’s testing a new feature with a small group of users that allows a member of the social network to “subscribe” to another user’s updates, in the same way that Twitter allows users to “follow” each other. But there’s a crucial difference with Facebook’s current version of the feature, in that you can’t subscribe to just anyone’s updates: only those of your existing friends on the network. TechCrunch reports that Facebook was testing a full Twitter-style follow feature at one point, code-named “Project Dance Party,” but later dropped the idea.
It’s not surprising that Facebook might have balked at implementing a full “follow” feature that didn’t rely on existing friendships within a user’s social network. Even the current version of the subscribe feature it’s testing has already been referred to by some as a “stalker button.” The idea that anyone could follow you on the network without your permission would throw up a huge number of red flags, since it would be a significant departure from the way the network has functioned to date. Implementing such a thing would be a sure sign that Facebook is suffering from severe Twitter envy (something CEO Mark Zuckerberg has admitted experiencing in the past).
From the beginning, one of the defining features of Facebook has been its status as what some social scientists call a
“synchronous” symmetric network. In other words, in order to connect with someone, they have to agree to allow the connection; you can’t just friend people randomly and see their updates. Twitter, by contrast, is an “asynchronous” asymmetric network, since I can follow you without asking your permission, and you might never even know I’m seeing your updates. Digg has adopted a similar model with its new redesign. This is fundamentally a publishing model, where you post your public thoughts for anyone to see (Note: I originally used the term asynchronous, but as some readers pointed out, asymmetric is a better way of describing it).
Facebook, however, is something fundamentally different, or at least it has been in the past. It was designed to recreate an actual web of friendships in the real world, which Mark Zuckerberg calls the “social graph.” In the real world, if a complete stranger started following you without asking your permission and was eavesdropping on your conversations, you’d probably call the police and charge them with harassment. On Twitter, however, this kind of behavior is taken for granted.
Would it be worth it for Facebook to change its nature and become more asynchronous? Perhaps. It might boost the network’s growth and make it even more attractive to advertisers, but it would come with serious risks. With the amount of outrage the company has faced from users, consumer advocacy groups and government entities over the privacy implications of every change in settings, a move to full asynchronous following — no matter how tightly controlled or monitored — would be a huge gamble, and it’s not at all clear that it would be worth it. For what it’s worth, I think Facebook should stick with its existing set-up and let Twitter handle the asynchronous following. There’s room for both approaches.
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