Facebook is starting to lose its touch

By Kevin Kelleher
November 22, 2011

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.

21 comments

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Excellent perspective.

Your point regarding everything we’re sharing lacking context is a very accurate assessment of why this frictionless distribution model fails – context is our filter for noise.

Pinterest, as an example, is doing an excellent job of filtering content into these buckets of context – and I believe is one of the main reasons they are achieving such great success – people really are seeking places where they can discover what *they* want, re: their interests.

Posted by mranauro | Report as abusive

Yesterday Mashable posted (http://mashable.com/2011/11/21/anybeat- social-network-taboo/) and Article about a new social network called Anybeat. Anybeat is designed as a casual place to meet new people and have interesting conversations. We welcome anyone looking for an alternative to the types of sharing they are currently experiencing on Facebook.

Posted by JustBrad | Report as abusive

Maybe GOOGLE+ is a better choice.

Posted by sunnyjackson | Report as abusive

Do enough people have interesting enough lives for Facebook? No. I could update mine once a week and that probably would be too much.

Posted by jscott418 | Report as abusive

The delusion that Facebook is will fail is fool-hardy. Facebook is here to stay.

People want, people need, people will, people should share everything on Facebook about their personal lives. The privacy controls need to be eliminated as everyone’s business and information must be in the public domain.

I hope governments across the globe require citizens to have a Facebook account and populate it with all their info. Only then can we really have a “social site” on the web.

Posted by FlamingLiberal | Report as abusive

People should also be aware of the tracking and data gathering back at the servers, and its reprocessing.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klout
is a place to start.
These data transfer arrangements provide useful information for marketers, employers, and political police.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

As someone who has found the privacy choices on Facebook too
confusing and hated being linked to the site unknowingly, I would
love for its dominance to decline. There are too many items that
force a link through Facebook needlessly. Who has the time or
interest to follow every detail and action of other people??

Posted by giatny | Report as abusive

Facebook is now getting dull , google plus hold the key toward more sustainable online social networking experience

Posted by pinlfloy | Report as abusive

I agree, Facebook is losing touch with what their users actually want. Obviously if they were not, their users would not be so frequently angered. They begin to remind me of the wizards on high at Microsoft as they built feature after feature into their office suite that assumed to do our thinking for us. In the communication age it is no big thing for users in a social network to invent their own ways of sharing what they want to share. Facebook is dangerously overstepping by setting us up to share surprising things in surprising ways, unasked for, and then offering us a not-always-clear method of opting out.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

Keep it simple

1. Use only false details except for your e-mail.
2. Tell your friends that its you when sending requests..
3. Keep your accounts exclusive, use only for communicating.
4. Do not post on others walls unnecessarily, no pics

If we use FB well, it can be a great tool. Its only its mis-use that causes problems.

Posted by Smart123 | Report as abusive

Perhaps I’m too old, but the idea that I should be required to share every little detail about myself on the web sounds too much like the confessional. Or a bit like the old vacation slide show where you bore friends and family alike with what you did in Hawaii. Is this what we’ve become? A world full of self-absorbed narcissists who think that every little detail of our humdrum lives is newsworthy? And, call me paranoid if you will, but knowing the world the way I do, there are some thoughts and opinions that could be used against you if you aren’t careful. Mark Zuckerberg sounds like a nosy, intrusive, meddlesome Big Brother wannabe be to me. You can have him and his creepy world.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

I quit facebook and have no regrets. Recommend it to other readers too – it saves a lot of time

Posted by Radek.kow1 | Report as abusive

I signed off of Facebook. Found out I did not need it. Life is much simpler and nicer without it. Lovely to pick up the phone and actually carry on a live conversation with my children and friends or visit with them in person. Talking to a machine that is there to collect and track data under the guise of “social networking” is just not my cup of tea.

Posted by duet | Report as abusive

Facebook’s problem is that they took the security out of the Users hand and into the Developers hand. When in reality the best thing about facebook was how to see others while still keeping some form of anonymity and privacy. Other users can of course do the same….This is the same reason why Google+ is failing, if Google+ can become like how facebook used to be than they will steal every facebook user period….I know I will. Facebook NEEDS TO BRING OLD PRIVACY BACK AS SOON AS POSSIBLE…

Posted by itrance | Report as abusive

The commercial aspects of this pale in comparison to the real purpose of Facebook. It is a creation of the security agencies of the the US specifically designed to spy on and control the people of this country. It’s decline is in the fact that people are creating online associations with people they do not even know which messes up the plan to track real associations.

Posted by DJ4060 | Report as abusive

Why should we have a huge club housed with congested people? that is my question..

For example I’m in FB just because I can post comment and quickly access other websites, that is it. I don’t trust my data with them.

For an example I found http://www.onetikk.com they are offering social networking for travellers. They providing destination guides and blogs and videos and deals and what all not and I was impressed. I was not hit by anything other than travel related stuff. I have more chance of finding new people that share my passion in there rather than in fb who got people I know in real life.

Posted by balasankar | Report as abusive

When I tell people that I’m not on Facebook because I value my privacy, they often ask, “Why? What do you have to hide?” My answer is “I have nothing to hide. But that is not the reason for privacy.”
Privacy is the human construct that carves out a quiet space to think in. It is not surprising, given the lack of privacy on FB, that there is also very little significant thought expressed there.
While there is nothing inherently wrong in a voluntary social network, it is not the venue for creating or expressing significant intellectual insights. One may liken FB to a shopping mall: crowded, noisy, full of animated people. Privacy is more like a library: quiet, conducive to thought and contemplation. Both the library and mall have their places in our lives, but neither should be confused with the other.

Posted by yoresident | Report as abusive

I personally dislike facebook for what it is doing to how we converse and communicate. There’s nothing natural about it, and it’s not really an effective exchange.

Case in point, here.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNJqn4cqE W8

Posted by spacemonkeymojo | Report as abusive

Using Facebook is like having a nanny, or playground monitor,in an oversized playground organizing events and interactions that gormless but desperately needy kids are not mature enough to do on their own.
Now, if Facebook removed the over weening “nanny” part it might be more acceptable but their “nanny” is so over bearing and manipulating it too frequently makes one want to pee in one’s diapers and hurry to post the result for all the world to see on someone else’s Facebook page.Facebook attempts to organize every pathetic interaction as if people were really drooling Facebook apes swinging from specially constructed Facebook tree limbs frantically showing off their best and worse Facebook bananas in a frenzy of ego fueled Facebook “show and tell”.Facebook has become all Facebook and there is little of any real substance left over for all the millions of people trapped into using it.People have become it’s willing, and even unwilling, little Facebook slaves.If they are cut off from Facebook then they will be relegated to a social garbage heap bereft of a world wide audience of maybe three people who accidentally became their friends, and thousands of others who were only doing exchange friendship deals in order to expand the number of friends shown on their own Facebook page.

Whatever happened to real social interaction between real human beings using their own well developed social skills and normal methods of private communication ?

Posted by Limey | Report as abusive

I do have a Facebook account and played a game on there by playdom. In October the game was playing up and it accidentally took £33.00 from my paypal account and despite many many efforts to get it back I have failed. Playdom says its Facebooks problem and Facebook will not answer my emails. I have even emailed Mark himself but to no avail. I do not know where to go next, they even took away the £33.00 worth of credits they gave me because I told them I just wanted a refund of my money.I am so angry that I even tried to close my account but it turns out that is impossible as the account just stays there whether or not you click the close button!

Posted by rosiebabe | Report as abusive

Okay, I agree and your point is well-argued. The only problem is that the people cited here tend to be tech-elites and not your average users. I wish the trend was true but I’m just not so sure it is. The average user absolutely rebels against efforts to “herd” them in a predetermined direction (as Netflix found out, painfully) but that’s not always the case. It’s more a case of ease of use – if FB makes sharing more complicated, people will leave in droves. If it’s easy, they’ll stay despite the insane consequences that result. The jury is still out on this one, though you are right in suggesting this could be – could be – a turning point.

Posted by markcraig | Report as abusive