Facebook: Population 200M, Faces an Identity Crisis

47 Comments

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.

47 Comments

thegeniusfiles

I am a relative newcomer to FB, so not nostalgic about its past. However, I do seriously question the need for having a ‘home’ page AND a profile page. Its confusing and frankly annoying. There is no obvious way to filter or control what you see. To me, that says a lot about FB as a company: it doesn’t seem very integrated. Like, there are parallel projects with duplicated effort, and not enough connection to the user. That is an opportunity for someone to eat their lunch. It happened to MySpace!

Maria Russo

Om,

Enjoyed this piece, and am interested in your approach to the changes on Facebook. I’m writing a piece on how journalists deal with Facebook as a company and as a fixture in their daily lives. If you would be willing to answer a few questions for the piece I’d be deeply grateful! (Deadline is late Sunday, alas).

John

Excellent insight!

“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.” captures the true essence that I have felt has changed with the new update with Facebook.

I *don’t* need to now what is being updated in “real time” but I *do* want to immersed myself into my social graph about my friends’ lives, serendipitously and not have to be on Facebook all the time to constantly make sure that I am not missing what is going on in “real time,” which doesn’t really reflect reality, since in the real (not virtual world), one cannot parallel process what is going on with all of your friends all at once.

Clement

This is the beginning of the end for Facebook. When you begin to become too envious of competitors up to the extent of shamelessly copying their style, it means only one thing – you have run out of ideas and you are on the way out.

By the way, do you know that Facebook is also envious of wadja, a recent social networking site that enables its members to send a limited number of free sms messages across the world. Facebook will never allow you to insert the word “wadja” on their site.

Slavik Kaushan

hmm really facebook give me error
————-
Warning: This Message Contains Blocked Content
Some content in this message has been reported as abusive by Facebook users.
————-
when I tried to post word wadja

it’s fun

TheManInTheYellowHat

Thank you for being able to identify the problem with the new Facebook – its new Twitter-y interface. It has truly changed the interaction, and not for the better.

Casey

Om,

Interesting points, but I think you miss some of the intricacies involved in the site. I am not Facebook’s champion, but I will argue that to assume it is only about our past, partial present, and rarely about our future is a poor analysis. Do we not use the past as a means of projecting our future? Do we not reexamine situations and specific epochs from our own history to shed light on where we have come from to where we are going?

When someone “reconnects” with an old friend, rarely is that the same person they knew long ago—thus, they have met “new people.” We create our perceptions of ourselves by those who we interact with and who we stop interacting with – and of course, who we choose to interact with.

I like Twitter, it serves its purpose for me as a means of interacting with a group of people that I share common interests. Facebook is just another way of doing that, but in a more multimodal way. Rhetorically, both offer their advantages, but it is a matter of perception and what the user wants to get out of each site.

Also, do not be so quick to see Twitter as being immune to any changes. In the end, money and investors, no matter how noble the original design, corrupts everything.

Maybe this blast of reality is something you and the other Prophets of Twitter should think about.

CRM

Husein

OM I Agree with the niche emphasis. I was drawn into facebook first by curiosity second by nieces and nephews and a way to stay connected to them given they live around the globe. Since then, Geni (family tree) has appeared in my life. A private network for my extended family. I am a lot more interested in sharing things on Geni than facebook and I can see how Geni can become the social network for families.

While facebook is an elaborate platform, I would be interested in a historical example of where people have gathered routinely with no common interest. I would think history is often a good indicator of future human behavior.

Arjun

This is an interesting cycle. Almost everyone in the SNS business is desperately trying to increase foot-fall following the ‘eyeball to revenue’ strategy (which has a miserable track record in itself). And when they do so, they loose identity as you correctly put it.

The one SNS site that has maintained a reasonable degree of ‘vertical’ focus is LinkedIn, but that too is slowly going the ‘horizontal spread way’ with the irritating “What are you working on now” text box. However, fortunately, the profile box is not *yet* as littered as with facebook (getting there, with “Industry news”, “status updates” etc. etc.)

I

A.B. Dada

While I have both a Facebook and a Twitter account, I am rarely active on either. I also prefer not to SMS or email much anymore.

If my friends want to see me, they know where I live — I’m a phone call away. Those who prefer digital relationships are relegated to the term “colleague,” or worse — “online colleague.”

I have little time for fake friendships, fake relationships, and wasting time gawking over baby photos from couples whose weddings I wasn’t even invited to.

For those who do like the time waster, it’s fine for me — I’ll make my profit while they’re spinning updates, and I’ll spend quality time with friends I actually meet face to face.

Senseless digital noise, no different than the forums on my old BBS I ran. The newspaper industry is just saddened that their share of senseless noise was taken by a new form of frail and forgettable entertainment.

David Mead

I think the one thing people are missing about this latest iteration of Facebook is that their memories and connections (content) are still there. That hasn’t been changed, just the look and feel (presentation).

When you sign up for anything like Facebook you should do so with the knowledge that you do not own or really have control on how your “stuff” is presented, to you or anyone else. I would have a problem if Facebook decided it would drop photos and just delete everything I’d uploaded, but the didn’t. They just changed some code that they wrote and own.

I think as these places grow in popularity and acceptance in the wider world, people are going to have to start accepting that this is the way of the internet.

As for the discovery of new people, I have that all the time on Facebook. It just happens that you have to ask permission to see their “stuff”. As far as I know that is still the case.

Todd

Om if you feel this way, then why are anonymous comments allowed here at GigOm? Anonymous comment lack intimacy. Require full blown sign-ups, email validations of only people you know in the real world to be allowed to comment on posts! :P

Twitter is very intimate since you can dictates who’s tweets are sent to your mobile phone and who’s are not ( unlike face book ).

Twitter is about discovery of new people which is social behavior. Even with the new Twitter envy, Facebook’s closed walled garden and mandatory reciprocity is anti-social.

AK

Hi Om,

This twitter-effect is used in orkut as well. But in a much more un-intrusive way.

Thanks for the great post.

Dave

Tvitter – an excellent platform for communication, so if you have any business related to the services of persons or goods, such as frequency of consumption, the best platform to communicate with clients if you do not find it. After all the charm and strength Tvittera it instantly, instant alerts, instant response. The main thing is not to let self.

Parham

Great post Om!

Facebook is really about the past and a bit of present, as you mentioned. Twitter, well, I am still ambivalent of its usefulness despite all the media coverage and funding it’s getting lately. Valley and media they want something to talk about (chronologically): friendster, myspace, facebook, twitter…

The new UI of Facebook is horrible. The company has clearly lost its identity. I have truly enjoyed Facebook from October 2008 til March 2009, found many of my childhood and college friends there, and in the last 3 weeks, I have only been on the site once a week!

A revamp of UI and product departments is much needed.

Jim McClintock

Agree with you 100%, Om. First time I saw that new page design was roughly equivalent to my first/only experience with New Coke. Having thereby provided a clue that i was not in the original target demographic for FB, what i have found most interesting is that my kids, one a junior in college and the other a junior in high school say that they AND their friends all hate the new design and use it much less frequently as a direct result. Those are the people who have been the extended users of FB, and my bet is that FB management, unless they choose to be willfully ignorant, will soon be confronted with stats documenting a widespread trend to that effect.

BrandonJD

As a user of both, It pains me to see Facebook try to become Twitter, especially since it can’t on a very fundamental level. Facebook relationships are based on tangible past connections, or connections through tangible connections. Twitter relationships on the other hand are based on content, the relevance of a users content to your interests. The two will never be able to reconcile to be able to make facebook do what twitter does, because the relationships that the services are founded upon are fundamentally different.

I agree that the new facebooks removes intimacy. Instead of talking to a friend in a semi private/semi public way when writing on a wall (to only a your mutual networks of people), you now feel like you are shouting in a open room. There is a layer of ambiguity about the status update, since wall posts and status updates are now indestinguishable. You cant talk on your own wall without it going out to the broader main page audience, cluttering their feeds with things that wern’t intended for them in the first place.

Facebook sacrificed the personal experience for the sake of the collective experience, but the psychology they spent so long developing in the facebook user is incongruous with this. The Facebook status update never meant the same thing as a tweet, and users havn’t changed their behavior to fit this new format. So its all hyper-prominent useless noise.I have used FB less since the change, and twitter more, since the experience is clear.

Ryan

I think that Facebook was different and made real connections between real people. I have reconnected with many old friends, mainly because it is private people post because it is in their control. This was a change from myspace that was open, really it was just a twitter page without a good subscription system. But twitter has changed that in that public status is very interesting, and much more than it seems. Facebook already has this public type profile with pages.

If Facebook could hold onto the real people connections and have some view or aspect that is more public. Like you make a public page that your friends can follow or not that is more featured and contains the status updates you post to the public side. It needs to divide private and public in a better way, merging them will break it all, at least the trust on the private side (real connections in many cases).

One side of things that is growing is gaming on Facebook. I’d like to be able to play with many people outside my ‘friends’ more like followers or crew. It is two different beasts Twitter and Facebook are going after, public and private.

Eray

I second your thoughts on this. I’m also wondering – now that facebook has become anything else than a student community – is this an reopened niche again? Honestly, the facebooks users are getting older, and students are all connected with their parents, uncles and whatsoever. I bet this is the opportunity to create an exclsuive playground for college boys and girls again..

Slavik Kaushan

I like how you are thinking Eray! :)

This really useful way of thinking and I agree with you absolutely.
This is the right time to make something fresh for new wave on people who are building their communication behaviors

I think twitter is doing this already in some way it’s much more fun then “old facebook”

Janak Mehta

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

free online virtual worlds

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.

TaiTran

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.

Cheers

Hemal

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!

Nick O'Neill

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?

Best,
Nick

Brant Cooper

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.”

Partho

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.

Slavik Kaushan

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!

Rohit Nallapeta

Om,
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.

Kelly

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.

Om Malik

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.

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