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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Facebook Just Keeps Getting Worse

Posted By on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 11:45 AM

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Over the years, whenever Facebook has made changes, people have inevitably complained --  on Facebook -- about the changes Facebook made to Facebook. "I'm leaving Facebook," those people would declare, on Facebook. Of course, few of them ever actually left Facebook.

Until recently, I have usually found this amusing. I've been working on the Web for a long time, and I know that whenever changes are made, people complain for a day or two, but they always get used to the newly tweaked site and often ultimately decide that it's better after all.

Such has been the case with Facebook. People freaked out a few years ago when real-time status updates were implemented (you no longer had to reload the page to see new stuff). I assume that if this feature were removed today, people would freak out even more over its absence -- and they'd be right to do so since the change was an improvement. (Of course, none of this stuff is actually worth freaking out over. All of it comes under the heading of First World Problems.)

So I have a high bar for deciding that a change is actually bad. Facebook has lately been leaping over that bar. First came the Ticker, which after months I'm still unable to totally ignore as it pushes the most mundane of my friends' activities into my face. Ameliorating the problem is possible, but arduous -- you have to opt out of it one friend at a time.

That, though, was just a sign of things to come.
 

All of the changes come from Mark Zuckerberg and Co.'s idea that "sharing" is always good. In reality, it usually isn't good for users. But it is good for Facebook, since sharing increases the amount of stuff on the site and hence the amount of time people spend there. And, mostly, it helps the company isolate its users' interests, making them more easily targeted by advertisers. I don't have a problem with that -- I'd rather be targeted with stuff I'm interested in than with stuff I'm not (though I don't pay much attention to ads anyway -- particularly the cheesy, low-rent ads that dominate Facebook). What does bugs me is the coercive methods Facebook uses to achieve this targeting.

One new example of Facebook's forced sharing is the "social reader." Various publications -- the Washington Post, Yahoo! News, and lots of others -- let you sign up for the reader app, which is housed within Facebook. When you read an article linked to from the reader, it shows up in the newsfeeds of all your friends, whether you want it to or not. So this might show up in all of John Smith's friends' feeds: "John Smith read 'Researchers Find New Treatment for Midlife Male Breast Development.'"

I tried the Washington Post Social Reader and immediately stopped. There are some stories I read online that I want to share with my Facebook friends, but I surely don't want to share ALL of them. As Farhad Manjoo so eloquently explained recently, sharing is ultimately about choosing, and choosing is something Facebook is trying to eliminate from our online lives. Because the less you choose to share, the less that advertisers can learn about you.

And now, Facebook is finally rolling out its Timeline, the new design for profile pages. This, too, is being foisted upon us. We have no choice but to accept it. The only good thing I can say about it is that it looks nice -- I like the top of the page, for instance, where you can post a big, horizontal picture.

Functionally, though, it's awful. Most of the people who say they like it seem to be ubergeeks and design nerds, some of whom seem to like things because they are difficult. The kinds of people for whom function follows form. The kinds of people who insist that white-on-black text is superior, or who (still!) design all-Flash websites.

"Timeline" itself is something of a misnomer. The old profile presented status updates in perfect, linear, reverse-chronological order, like a blog. Timeline presents them in hopscotch fashion, skipping back and forth between two columns. Often, people's status updates refer to each other. This makes reading them harder.

But the main complaint from the ~70 percent of people who say they don't like Timeline is that it forces them -- there's that word force again -- to go back through their entire Facebook history to delete stuff they don't want showing up there -- including stuff they thought they had already deleted.

About the only thing that will keep the criticism somewhat muted is the fact that Timeline doesn't affect newsfeeds, but only profiles. Most people don't spend a ton of time on people's profiles -- the newsfeed is where the action is. But if all these recent moves are harbingers of what's to come, we can only expect Facebook to get worse and worse.

It's wise to keep in mind that Facebook's users aren't its customers -- the advertisers are the customers, and the users are the product. Facebook doesn't particularly care whether users like or dislike what the company does or how it treats them; it cares only that they keep using the service so they may be sold to advertisers.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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Dan Mitchell

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