Facebook is starting to lose its touch
By Kevin Kelleher
The opinions expressed are his own.
Facebook is steamrolling forward. It now boasts 800 million active users. The company is reportedly preparting for an initial public offering. It’s laying plans to sell a Facebook phone, strengthening its presence on the mobile web. But Facebook’s plans may be hampered by a new backlash against the company’s efforts to get its users to share more of their lives online.
In September, Facebook announced at its annual f8 developers conference that it was upgrading its Open Graph technology. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced Open Graph in 2010 to let web sites and apps share information about users with Facebook. The revamped Open Graph takes sharing to a new level, allowing apps that automatically share what articles users are reading or what music they’re listening to.
Zuckerberg said the new feature would allow “frictionless experiences” and “real-time serendipity.” At the time, only a few observers found them to be scary. “They are seeking out information to report about you,” wrote developer and blogger Dave Winer. But suddenly, a critical mass of critics are speaking up about the changes, how they affect users and publishers alike.
Facebook has had its share of controversies in the past. In 2007, it introduced Beacon, an early version of Open Graph that automatically opted all users into its sharing features. In time, Facebook learned to allow users to opt in. But more importantly, its site changed how its users thought about privacy online. Today, it’s a given that the web is evolving into a social landscape where sharing personal information online is increasingly common. You either learn to share, or you stay off Facebook.
The latest round of complaints have a different theme: This time, the problem is that Facebook is getting the social web wrong. One of the key reasons for Facebook’s success is that Zuckerberg didn’t try to tell its users how to use a social network. He kept things simple and made changes only when the online behavior of users dictated them. Zuckerberg believed that, in time, people would grow more comfortable sharing personal data on its site, even if they found it creepy at first.
Yet it seemed that every year Facebook again found itself in the middle of some privacy controversy, with critics charging it was getting too intrusive. Facebook kept growing, and it would return the following year with new features designed to seduce users into sharing more. In that sense, Zuckerberg was right that in time many people would share more freely.
And so it’s strange to see Facebook begin to fall out of touch with its users, herding them into a frictionless future dictated by the company’s own terms. The latest backlash began this weekend, as CNET’s Molly Wood declared that “Facebook is ruining sharing” because, simply put, Facebook is making the quantity of content more important than the quality.
Others deplored the unwanted prompts to install news-sharing apps that can pop up when users click on a headline (these are Facebook’s answer to getting users to opt-in to the automatic sharing). “That hijacking of your navigation around the web is the kind of action taken by malware,” wrote ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick. “It’s pushy, manipulative and user-hostile.” Entrepreneur Anil Dash chided Facebook for trying to control how users link to and access other sites. “Facebook is gaslighting users into believing that visiting the web is dangerous or threatening,” he wrote.
This is more than the usual Facebook backlash. New features on social media sites often require users to change their behavior, and the grumbling usually subsides in time. But Facebook’s latest features seem to demand deeper, more fundamental changes in online behavior that feel intuitively wrong. Sharing our daily lives on the social web isn’t anywhere near as passive an experience as Facebook’s new features seem to suggest. Friction is a part of our everyday communication – it’s what separates the stream of consciousness in our minds from the things we say out loud. In everyday life, silence is also information. But not anymore on the web.
This becomes clear when too much of what we share automatically lacks context. Did you click on that Rob Kardashian story by accident, or read that fawning review of Breaking Dawn only to hit the back button in disgust? Was that a loved one listening to Pat Benatar on your Spotify account, or was it you? Your friends will never know for sure, but these revelations may be online for good. In trying to become a Google-like filter for the entire web, Facebook has broken the filter on its own news feeds.
Publishers are facing a similar problem. The Independent newspaper integrated Facebook’s new sharing feature into its site, and found that the stories most frequently shared and viewed were tabloid-like headlines from the late 1990s. Instead of offering a glimpse into the present moments of our friends’ lives, Facebook is building a real-time archive of news stories that are popular because of a timeless demand for the lowest-common denominator.
Some of these gripes can be addressed with a few tweaks – allowing people to “unshare” stories they’ve read or delete songs from their music lists. But Facebook’s bigger problem is that its instincts seem to be growing dull, so that its vision for the social web is deviating from what its users really want. That could open the door for another social network to challenge Facebook as the king of the social web.
Perhaps the company has reached a crossroads: Facebook can be the most important social network on the web. Or it can try to decide for us how we navigate the web. But it can’t do both very well for very long.