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Facebook is Dying - Social is Not

Written by on May 5, 2010

There is one question that I hear all the time. Is Facebook going to last, or is it just a fad? My answer is always the same. If you are trying to find an excuse for not doing “social,” then Facebook is here to stay. But, if you ask “is Facebook going to last?” Then the answer is no; it’s already dying.

Let me explain.

Facebook is like Microsoft Project 2003

If I had to compare Facebook to anything, I would say that it is turning into Microsoft Project 2003.

Microsoft Project 2003 was *the* project management tool for any serious project manger. It was more or less unrivaled by its competitors, being much bigger than anything else out there. It could do anything. It had a gazillion features, it could be extended, you could run it as a server, and you had an intense amount of control over every little thing.

But that was what also caused its demise. Its sheer size meant that it turned into a beast of complexity. There was a huge number of inconsistencies. To use it effectively, you had to go through many steps, which in turn meant that you would be using more time fiddling with the interface, trying to manage each task, than actually doing something.

So Microsoft Project 2003 destroyed itself. It got so complex that people had no other choice than to look at simpler solutions. In its place came a whole new group of really incredible simple project tools, which focused on doing projects, instead of managing them.

Same with Facebook

Facebook is really big, it has a ton of features. But, it is also turning into the worst case of complexity overload the web has seen in years. There are so many inconsistencies that it is hard to believe - or even to keep track of.

To give you a few examples.

We got profiles, groups, pages, and now also community pages - who all looks rather similar, but works quite differently.

We got inconsistencies in likes and comments. If you comment on a page, you do so as “the page,” but if you like it, you do so as “you as a person.”

We are notified when someone post a comment on our profiles, but not on our pages.

If you post one picture, the comments for the accompanying wall post are linked to the picture. But, if you post two images, the wall post comments are linked to the album. And then it gets really cumbersome to keep track of what people say.

The number of privacy settings is just staggering. When I, a few days ago, had to help a family member setup her Facebook profile, I just showed her the one profile privacy settings (with 12 options), choosing not to mention the 16 other places where there are even more settings to adjust.

Using Facebook mobile introduces a whole new way of insanity. If you email one picture from your mobile phone, it is posted to your wall, with the subject as the wall text. But, if you then 15 minutes later see something else, email that too, with a subject text. Then that picture is added to the first - thus removing the wall text from the original picture. ...and the second one. Plus, the comments that used to belong to the original picture have now disappeared from the wall, and comments have been disabled on the wall for that post.

FBML, Facebook’s made up way to add functionality, is... tricky. What FBML tags you can use depends on where you are, how you got there, and which type app you use it with.

FBML in a staticFBML box, on your wall, allows you to use some tags but not others. Adding a staticFBML tag to a tab, allows you to use others but not some. Adding FBML as a Facebook app, allows you to use another kind of others, and only some of the first. Using FBML on canvas pages allows you to use most of the first ones, quite a bit of the others, but not some of the others. Using FBML on your Facebook Connect site allows to use a few of the ones, none of the others, but a few completely new ones that are not some or others of the first, second, or even third... ehm... ones... or is it others? Riiight!

And speaking of Facebook Connect. It is the most complex thing I have ever seen. And also the most annoying thing to work with. If you want to integrate Twitter, you just make a simple request. With Facebook Connect that is quite impossible to do in any kind of easy way.

If you want to post to you Facebook page, from your website, you have to be a rocket scientist, with a flair for magic. Facebook tries to pretend it’s really simple, but it is the most complex thing I have ever seen.

Same goes for the Facebook API. With Twitter, Flickr, Google, YouTube, and all the others, it is a simple matter of requesting data. With Facebook you have to add all kinds of strange things to it, encrypt part of your request etc. It is immensely powerful, but also astonishingly complex.

Note: The open Graph API is slightly better, but not much.

And if you want to integrate Facebook into your app, people have to go through an overly complex process to authenticate it.

Privacy = trust; lack of privacy = lack of trust

On top of the complexity and inconsistencies, we have a growing problem of privacy issues. Facebook has a long track record of ignoring people’s privacy. As I wrote in “The First Rule of Privacy”; You are the only one, who can decide what you want to share. Facebook cannot decide that, nor can anyone else.

But, Facebook seems oblivious to this simple principle, and have started sharing personal information with 3rd party “partners” - continuing a long line of really bad decisions when it comes to privacy.

People will lose faith in Facebook if they cannot trust who sees the information they share, and if they cannot decide what part of their life is exposed to strangers.

There is something seriously wrong with their business ethics, when they even contemplate publishing content that was previously marked private.

Notice: Also read Facebook's Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline

Community Pages

Apart from the privacy issues, Facebook is also trying to decide how you can publish content. Several page owners have recently received a notice that their pages have been reclassified as community pages, with the note that “this change has not affected your presence on Facebook.”

That is a direct lie. The differences between a page and a community page are staggering. A community page doesn’t have an owner; everyone can edit it. It doesn’t post updates to people in the same way - thus dramatically reducing possibly engagement levels.

“Once you cross a certain undefined threshold - for instance, a million fans - the page gets ripped from your clutches and released to the community, where it will be treated like a Wikipedia page for all to edit. You lose - good day sir. (via pixelrage.com)”

Compare it to if you have a blog on TypePad, and one day you get an email that you have been removed as the administrator of your own blog.

That is what Facebook is doing with community pages. Effectively destroying the tribe you have been trying to make. Apparently, Facebook believes that the best way to award people for their viral success is to remove them. #monsterfail

There is no need for this complexity, nor is there any need to create such a policy. E.g. Twitter isn’t saying saying that you can only have 5000 followers in your profile, and unless you are a company you cannot make another one. And even if you do create one, at a certain point you will be removed as the owner and creator.

It’s getting worse.

All of this is just a small part of Facebook’s growing level complexity and inconsistencies. The problem is that it is getting worse. Every week, Facebook announces a new set of policy changes, or introduces a new level of complexity.

Just take the whole mess of the new Facebook “likes”. First, Facebook changed what “like” means. To me a like is an endorsement. I like you, because you are reading this article. But that doesn’t mean I want to subscribe to everything you do, and have you fill my news stream with your updates.

But, Facebook now defines liking as both an endorsement but also the act of subscribing or following a person or brand.

We now have five different types of likes:

  1. You can like a normal post on a page or profile. That is simply an endorsement, nothing else.
  2. You can like a page, which isn’t an endorsement at all, instead it is a commitment because you are actually subscribing to it.
  3. You can like an advertisement, which is also not an endorsement, but will cause you to subscribe to that brand (and any future post they might make)
  4. You can like e.g. a movie review on a website, which is just an endorsement
  5. You can like a website as a whole, which is both an endorsement and commitment, depending on how that website have implemented the like button. You will not be able to tell the difference, but website owners can decide to push updates to you, based on settings only the website owners control.

It is a mess, and it is deceptive marketing tactics. It’s like the difference of walking up to a girl, and saying “I like you” vs. “I want to marry you” - pretending that is the same thing.

Facebook excuses itself by saying that “User will understand the distinction through explicit social context,” which is a load of crap. Every usability expert in the world knows that introducing modes to distinguish identical actions are a really bad idea, and is impossible to understand.

But, they go on to say “To eliminate confusion and promote consistency, there will no longer be a way to give feedback to these types of news.”

Meaning that if you like a status update, your friends can see it, like or comment on it. But, if you like a page (and thus become a fan), your friends can see it but not comment or like it.

How is that eliminating confusion?

I’m sorry Facebook. I think your concept is brilliant, and the social world is amazing. But, if you don’t get your act together soon, you will end up like Myspace - or worse - AOL.

Your engineers are running the asylum.

Update: Read the follow-up to this article "I'm not quitting Facebook."

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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