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
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
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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