Facebook Redesign: May Earn Thumbs Down from Ordinary Users

Facebook's new redesign, which rolls out to users in the coming weeks, will probably please social media evangelists and power users. But Joe Facebook? He may not like the new look as much.

Facebook is changing its look again. During a press conference at the social network company's Palo Alto headquarters yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined the goals for the upcoming redesign, which users will see on their home pages in the coming weeks.


While Facebook hopes to improve the way in which you share and discover information on the service, the new design risks alienating everyday users with information overload. In fact, the new format seems more geared toward the desires of social media insiders rather than Facebook's general user base.

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So what are the key changes to the home pages people will see when they first log onto the service?

For starters, information fed into your newsfeed — the main piece of real estate running down the center of a Facebook homepage where you view friends' status updates, comments, photos and shared links — will be updated in real time, Zuckerberg says. Currently, Facebook updates the newsfeed selectively a few times a day.

Industry followers have assigned several buzzwords to this type of design, but Zuckberg settled on "streaming" — the idea that information flows toward you like a river of fresh content. Provided you have several friends who remain active on the service, the stream never goes static, with new content constantly being pumped into it.

Facebook information
New Facebook Information "Stream" (pictured above).

The other major change stems from the "Pages" (with a capital P) operated by celebrity Facebook members and large organizations. As this Techcrunch summary pointed out, Pages will become more reliant on the new streaming model. So instead of displaying lots of static information about a company (that you could get from a LinkedIn or Hoovers profile), Pages will display comments, pictures, and other pieces of content that fans of that page contribute. The new design also abolishes the 5,000 friend limit.

The other changes will be fairly minor, but look to improve the accessibility of key Facebook functions. A task bar box on the left side of the home page will list critical Facebook applications, such as "photos" or "links."

Facebook "Filters" and applications menu.

In addition, the box will contain filters that you can set up for your Facebook Stream in the newsfeed. For instance, if you wanted to only see the activities of friends in your immediate network (such as "San Francisco"), or even something more granular (such as "college friends"), you will be able to set the filters accordingly.

As someone who spends a lot of — or probably too much — time using social technologies, I like the changes on the whole. They make Facebook even less reliant on you visiting other people's profile pages to learn what's happening. Perhaps it will make the social networking world less an enabler of narcissism; this model is more oriented towards contributing to an information collective rather than the self-important personal profiles.

But I often question the merits of streaming technology in general. It feels like something the social networking digerati tries to cram down our throats rather than a bottom up call from normal users who don't make their living building or analyzing these technologies. Most people can only spend so much of their day on Facebook. As a result, there might be more value in designing a Facebook homepage to be a "greatest hits" that Facebook's algorithm tailors to you — rather than a constant, never-stopping information stream.

Twitter has been an example of how never-ending information streams cause you to miss important and relevant information due to the sheer volume of noise. If you simply turn off your Twitter feed for a couple hours, or you're a sane and balanced person who doesn't want to spend your whole day there, you miss lots of relevant information that floated down the stream while you were not standing on the river bank. You could physically scroll back through the hundreds or thousands of tweets (which would take forever) you missed, or you could use Twitter's search tool or subscribe to RSS feeds to specific pages, but that will never catch you up entirely.

It would be a shame, for instance, if a friend of mine posted a Facebook album that I might find fun but missed because I didn't sign onto Facebook for a while. Sure, the filters feature in the redesign will help, but the overwhelming effect, in my opinion, will be a product designed for someone who spends his whole life, or at least much of the day, on Facebook. The streaming approach also satisfies the cheerleaders for services like Friendfeed which, while a neat piece of technology, largely serves tech geeks rather than the general populace.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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