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Breaking up is hard to do

Summary: Facebook is starting to address some of the complexities of fluid relationships in people’s lives. Many apps struggle with being the app for today, but not tomorrow, and users can’t be expected to do the hard work.

Facebook has recently introduced a new feature allowing for users to take a break from their exes after a breakup. This is potentially very useful, and at the same time points up a challenge with many internet services, that they are resolutely for today and forward looking, and therefore tend to treat all relationships and linkages as if they are current.

Facebook’s idea is not completely new- Dodgeball faced the same issue in its development, especially important for a service which acted something like Tinder, in the emerging mobile world of New York and other urban areas in the mid-noughties. That service was notification based so it was easier to turn things off (though it presumably created ”busted” moments when someone who was clearly using the service was suddenly at the same bar as the ex, who had not received a notification of a nearby contact- Walter Scott said it early and best- “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!”)

The challenge for many of these services is that a link once made is assumed to be important and unchanging. A different and simple example of this is the challenge with services that link to Facebook for log in. My avatar for many services is the image I had on Facebook when I joined the third party service, using Facebook auth, but is not now the current Facebook avatar. This is amusing in some cases, annoying in others.

It’s too hard to manage- look at your phone
Contact lists on phones are another place where you’ll likely see old avatars (I still have a 2012 election Facebook image as the contact photo for one of my more commonly phoned contacts). These phone contact lists are a great example of how technology has too long a memory and encourages brute force changes. Most phone contact lists are in essence random, with the numbers of some people you have only spoken with once enshrined for ever, because adding them to the contact list was the easiest thing to do that week. What phones need is something half way between the address book and the recently called list- perhaps with some sort of half life so you can have a manageable list you don’t have to curate. Even with Plaxo, Linkedin and Brewster (and others), we are so far from functional contact lists that many people seem to have given up, and moved to (for example) Slack teams and Google Hangouts. They key point here is that they moved to a different app- rather than managing within an existing app.

Out with the old- in with the new!
One thing that Facebook is clearly trying to avoid is people taking a break from the service, or picking something else to avoid embarrassing or annoying interactions. It’s often much easier to do something new than manage something old. The cognitive load of deciding who to delete from a contact list is somehow much higher than the delight of picking some of the same people for a new list (try it).

Yahoo!’s struggles are perhaps an example of what happens if a company relies on “the same thing” for too long. No matter how good Yahoo! email gets, it is hard to think about going back to that first web mail account you opened to use it for real email, rather than the blunt spam management tool it has become for many. Google has managed to continually innovate with gmail, but likely it has remained the primary solution because it is no longer interesting to create another mass email solution- people have, for the moment, moved from email as an interesting new thing, and gmail was the last “cool new version.”

Facebook could be the same thing, after PlanetAll, TheGlobe, Friendster, and MySpace, is it perhaps not just that Facebook has won, but that the category is at some sort of local optimum, and really don’t find it interesting enough to think about a direct replacement (instead we are now looking for the new new thing which likely provides some unforeseen capability, or leverages something in a unique way).

Instant Messaging has gone through much of the same evolution, from consumer IM to Skype and then to SMS and mobile OTT solutions. Have we finished? Until it happens it’s hard to know which app will be the last man standing winner.

The world is fluid, and Facebook’s “take a break” feature is an interesting step, especially in a technology driven world where very often the normal way of doing something new is simply to pick a new tool.