Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Why Facebook will Go the Way of the Dodo

This is a post I've had rolling around in my head for several weeks now, and while it may be a little behind the times I'm going to get it out of my system anyway.

On May 24th of this year, the social network sensation Facebook introduced the ability to create applications for use on on the site. They range from useful things like a feed to del.icio.us links, to pointless, fun things like gifts, plants, pets, and one of my favourites, The Honesty Box. ("What do you really think of me? Answers are completely anonymous!")

At first these things seemed like a fun way to jazz up the uniform Facebook UI and give each profile its own unique look, as well as provide a way, if you're a developer, to share your creativity with your friends. That's all fine and good, until the sheer amount of clutter starts to overwhelm the core features of the site.

I've seen quite a few complaints about "application invite/request spam". A good example, large screenshot included, is a recent post from Paul S's blog. It clearly demonstrates how out of hand things can get when you have a lot of friends enthusiastically using and sharing their favourite applications. Personally, I don't have this problem - I guess because a lot of my closest friends are of the same mind as me, and maybe partly because I've never replied or sent requests to anyone else.

While I'm sure application spam is a legitimate concern for a lot of people, my main beef comes from a design perspective. (Not that I have any sort of qualification, other than being a 12-year-or-so veteran of internet browsing.) To put it simply, a lot of people's Facebook profiles are ugly now. Myspace-ugly. The reason a lot of college/university students embraced Facebook in the beginning was because it was a welcome change from the loud, obnoxious Myspace pages with background music and colour schemes that look like my sister's bedroom in the early 90's. Let's compare, shall we? Here's what profile pages looked like back in the day; ie. when I joined about 14 months ago:

By the way, I don't know this guy. The image is from Google. But it demonstrates how nice and clean things used to be. Nowadays you're more likely to see something like this:

It's not that I have some grudge against colours. This particular example isn't really too bad. (Again, from Google.) None of the apps pictured here are stupid or pointless, nor do they even look that bad. With this guy we'd be looking at a functionality issue, where the information you're looking for could easily get lost in all the other data that's there.

Here are two beliefs that I hold:

Number One: Mainstream trends are leaning more and more toward sleekness and minimalism. I'm sure we can all agree that Apple has been at the forefront of this revolution. Just look at the iPhone or the iPod Touch to witness the ultimate example of minimalist design in consumer electronics. It's what appeals to people these days. We see the same abstract themes in the design of cars and other material things. This might be a bit of a stretch for some people, but if you think about it, the same or similar elements of design are often present in everything from web browsers to electric shavers. (You may snicker at me for putting so much emphasis on fashion, but I would challenge you to provide a convincing argument that aesthetics aren't an enormous part of secular culture.)

Number Two: Convenience is a hugely important factor in our day to day lives, especially when it comes to computer usage. Well-designed websites make data access as easy as possible, with more information readily available. It's organized and uncluttered. Period.

Facebook is moving away from both these things. It has taken two steps backward in allowing users to transform its look into something reminiscent of the chaotic Myspace era, while simultaneously making it harder to access information. Which leads me to my next point: Facebook also gives users a huge amount of privacy settings, so that they can modify their page in almost any way imaginable to hide or limit certain aspects from the world, or just certain people - like parents. Maybe it's because I'm more willing to police my own content, but I can't identify with people who feel that they need to block access to their profile page from folks they don't have listed as friends. While it's possible that there are some people who only want their friends to know that they like watching The Hills, (understandable) I think the major concern is with items like contact information and Wall posts.

I say, if it's something you'd be worried about somebody knowing, then don't post it at all. If your friend needs your new address, that's what private messages are for. Back in April, the cover story from Wired magazine talked about how transparency is the best policy for business and social interaction these days, and increasingly so in the coming years. I won't spend time going into that, but in a nut shell, just think of it in terms of: "Nothing To Hide = Trust". Make sense? I think so. It's a better idea to not publicly share things in the first place and be prepared to put forward the tiny bit of effort required to moderate content, rather than bluntly hide information and make people wonder.

So, in the end, what we're seeing is Facebook making 3 major mistakes. Still, its popularity is on the rise even now, and I'm sure its success isn't near its end yet. I'm just saying we've seen the beginning of the end. I think Google's on the same page as me, considering that some information's recently leaked about a few web apps they'll be putting out that will challenge Facebook head-on.

Anyhoo. Time will tell. Right now time's telling me it's time to pack up and book it to Zoology.

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