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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Facebook: The Terrible Social-Media Service We're Stuck With -- For Now

Posted By on Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 9:45 AM


Facebook is terrible in countless ways, and the company's childlike, often incompetent management continues to make it worse -- purposely, it sometimes seems. But it wasn't always so bad, and when it was mostly pretty good, we were all joining. The network effect then took over, and now it's the biggest social-media service -- one that many people feel they are stuck with if they want to be on social media at all.

That network effect is a powerful thing. Vastly superior services can be started, but until they fill up with enough people who other people want to be connected with, they don't have the draw that Facebook has. Lots of people think Google+ is a lot better. But so few (relatively speaking) people are members that others are hesitant to add another network to their daily Internet time. It seems like a chore. For would-be competitors -- and increasingly for members -- it's a frustrating conundrum. Lots of people would love to jump ship. You first.

See also: Facebook's Ads Are Terrible, And Always Will Be

Facebook Accidentally "Outs" Gay Kids to Their Parents

Meanwhile, while Facebook boasts big numbers in terms of membership, it's still grasping for ways to make money. That grasping might be what does the service in, because most of the things it does tend to piss-off users. But if Facebook does ultimately fail, it will likely take a while. Incredibly, Facebook is still often referred to as a passing fad, and the people making such references often point to MySpace. This even though MySpace at its height was nowhere near Facebook, no matter what metric you apply. Your grandmother is on Facebook, but she wanted nothing to do with MySpace, even if she had actually heard of it, which she probably hadn't.

Still, that doesn't mean Facebook can't die. It certainly can, and management almost seems to be trying to speed up the process. Just about everything the company does is mystifyingly stupid. It makes regular changes to the look and feel of the service that don't improve the site, but rather do just the opposite. Just recall the Ticker -- just because it's a notorious example doesn't mean it's atypical. More to the point, even though the Ticker was universally hated upon its introduction, it's still there, though at least you can make it disappear.

The company's absolute incompetence is revealed by the proliferation of discussions on Facebook about how to use Facebook. Members are always asking their friends how to do this or that. And often, several different, incorrect answers are forthcoming. Just one of many examples: "How do you update your profile photo with a new one?" Once you figure it out, it's easy. But you shouldn't have to figure it out. Also: People have been complaining for years about the hidden "other" mailbox. When pages you follow or people you aren't friends with send you an e-mail, you aren't notified, and the message lands in the "other" box, where it languishes until you happen to stumble upon that mailbox, if you ever do. Facebook has not bothered to do anything about this problem, though a fix would be very easy.

Most recently, Facebook decided that "brand" pages must pay if they want all their followers to see any given status update. This is just Facebook thrashing about for ways to make money -- something it seemed to start worrying about sometime after it decided to go public. What "Facebook Promote" amounts to for many news outlets and other purveyors of information (which Facebook considers as "brands" just like Scott's Lawn Care or Coca-Cola) is that one of their main channels to news consumers has suddenly been cut off. For information-seeking users, of course, it's as annoying as hell. You can put all the pages you want to follow on an "interest list," and see all of them that way. But there's no way to see those updates conveniently in your regular newsfeed, as you once could. (As with just about everything on Facebook, the actual workings of the algorithm that governs what shows up are a total mystery. I see everything from SF Weekly in my newsfeed, but nothing from the New York Times, though it updates its page much more frequently.)

Then there are the privacy issues. I think people tend to freak out too much over privacy (you'll be a lot happier if you remember that nothing you do online is ever really private), but the actual issues aren't as important as Facebook's reliably clumsy approach to them. The latest example is the company apparently going back on its promise to put policy changes up for a vote of members. That promise was stupid, and the inevitable backpedal makes the company look stupider still. It's asking its users to vote to end their right to vote on these matters. It's like the company is being run by a middle school student council.

All of these problems and various inanities, and many more, come down to one thing: Facebook doesn't care about its users. Not even a little. We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that we are Facebook's "customers" -- we are more Facebook's product which it sells to its mostly cheesy, mostly lowbrow advertisers. Which is fine -- that's how media works. But like any media company, if Facebook continues to treat its users like crap (thereby diminishing the quality of the product) either out of sheer cluelessness or just for short-term gain, it will lose in the long run.

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Dan Mitchell


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