Hey Facebook. Just stop it. This has gone far enough. I’ve met some of you. You’re smart guys and gals. With any technology, you shouldn’t muscle it into doing something that it was never designed to be. For that reason, you should stop trying to be like Twitter. It doesn’t suit you.
Last week, tech blogger Robert Scoble lamented the problems with Facebook for public conversations. He rightly noted that Twitter still served as a better place for such an activity. Yet, he says, the acquisition of FriendFeed serves as an opportunity for Facebook and its leadership, “which wants us to be more public with our lives so that he [Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg] can open up Facebook even more, both to his own real time search engine as well as being able to push content out to widgets on blogs and publishing sites.”
While his reasoning is sound, everything Scoble describes here is a waste of time for Facebook.
At best, the FriendFeed acquisition was a move fueled by pressure from insiders in Silicon Valley, who comprise less that one percent of the world’s social networking population, yet make most of its most critical decisions concerning users — an irony that shouldn’t be lost on anyone seeing as these services fuel collective intelligence. At worst, it represents a misguided desire (or obsession, depending on who you ask) by the Facebook brass to transform the site into a public forum like Twitter, the very thing its users DIDN’T want Facebook to be when it grew in popularity and why people initially flocked to the site in such great numbers.
Facebook’s walled-off nature, and the closed networks that people enjoy within it, helped the company beat MySpace in the first wave of social networking wars. MySpace felt public, and at times creepy. Facebook felt safe. Users “friended” only the people with whom they wanted to share pictures, notes and status messages. These users didn’t want their profiles viewed by a bunch of random folks.
Now, in part motivated by the media’s love affair with Twitter, Facebook has decided to ignore the core appeal that made it successful. First, with the launch of its real-time search engine last week, Facebook gave users the option (or encouraged them, rather) to search for “everyone.” Second, Facebook’s upcoming new privacy settings, while branded as “more simple,” are being implemented for one simple reason: to encourage you to share information with everyone.
To assume Facebook users want these changes is presumptuous, and maybe even misguided from a business perspective. Facebook’s real-time search engine has tremendous potential to find out what all of our closest friends say about products and topics of interest, a prospect that should excite advertisers. This represents a different and more wise strategy from Facebook’s failed Beacon advertising experiment, where we were unknowingly opted-in to sharing information after we purchased products. The real-time search engine merely allows us to query Facebook for what our friends might have said about something, organically.
Trying to cram both public and private conversations into Facebook — and trying to gently massage this transition by saying users have the choice to do both — seems pointless to me. From a design perspective, I wouldn’t want Twitter-like noise in my Facebook home page (“News Feed”). I’m willing to bet many of Facebook’s most loyal and longtime users feel the same. And no, I don’t want a TweetDeck-like app for Facebook to help me sort through it. I value the simplicity of Facebook’s design (which is again, another reason it prevailed over the loud MySpace.) And unfortunately, that Facebook design is already not as simple as it used to be.
If run and tweaked properly in the coming year, the real time search engine complements Twitter rather than competes with it. Facebook should be satisfied with that reality. Both companies will benefit monetarily, and users win. We will always feel inclined to ask the Twitter community about certain topics where the collective intelligence might inform our opinions. But it will work well for us if those insights can be contrasted with what our closest friends say on Facebook. We don’t need, or want, Facebook for both purposes.
Even if a Friend-based search ad model fails (and it could) for Facebook, the company’s real long-term strength could be in helping us to control our identities. While Google has pitted the Web against Facebook as it concerns social networking standards, Facebook has won, time and again. Facebook Connect continues to add more sites everyday, growing its list, while the list of well-known Google Friend Connect sites is scant.
The trove of information in our Facebook profiles, and the fact that we have the ability to control sharing that information (any, some, or all of it) at different sites, puts Facebook in a powerful position. While Facebook has asked nothing in return from the sites that use Connect, it should do so in the future to help with its own monetization efforts. It has every right to cash in on this opportunity, and would be foolish to ignore it.
But the Twitter-ization or FriendFeed-ization of Facebook is not in the best interest of users. Analogies of how social networks behave are old and hackneyed, but they apply here. Twitter is the place to interact with the global community, whether at a bar, an inauguration, a protest or a town hall meeting. Facebook is for the people you’d invite into your home or to your backyard BBQ.
It’s a shame that a few news cycles during the past year have convinced Facebook to try and change that reality.