Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Did Facebook Make A Mistake?

Profile shown on Thefacebook in 2005
It wasn't hard to figure out what to talk about today. Facebook has featured prominently in technology news over the past day or two and I'm seeing a lot of negative comments from my Facebook friends.

From a usability perspective Facebook "updates" are always a mess but this one seems worse than normal. I've always been under the impression that most people who use Facebook don't want a bunch of innovation and/or change. All they really want  is a place they can hang out with their friends and family without having to think much about the interface or being distracted by a bunch of extraneous stuff that makes it harder for them to meet that basic need. Facebook used to be relatively simple and met that  need well which is why they ended up owning the social graph in the first place.

As time has gone on though they've had a tendency to get away from that simplicity and add an ever increasing number of features that take away from their core value to the bulk of their customers. This trend has accelerated recently with the emergence of Google+ as their first legitimate competition in years.

Facebook is also preparing for a public offering of their stock and is thus motivated to make changes that enhance their core value to current and future shareholders. The ironic thing is that actions that in the short term favorable to share holders often end up being unpopular and unfavorable to stakeholders such as customers which in turn leads to lost value for shareholders.

One thing that makes Facebooks task more difficult is the fact that their most important customers are advertisers. Facebook has a relationship that is analogous to that of most TV networks. Generally TV networks are supported by advertising but without viewers a TV network has no business. The tricky bit is that too much advertising alienates viewers who in turn tune out which makes advertisers unhappy. It's a difficult balancing act.

In defense of Facebook, some of the changes they've made aren't bad. Providing automatically categorized lists (AKA circles) and making it easy to add people to these lists is a nice feature even if they didn't embrace this change until Google+ built a lot of their early momentum on it.

One problem I've encountered is that things I've "liked" no longer seem to be showing up in my news feed and there is no obvious way to add liked things to one of Google's new auto generated lists. I'm highly selective with my likes which makes it frustrating that right now I'm missing out on at least some of the content that is being shared by way of these likes.

One challenge all incumbents have is figuring out when to stand pat and when to react to their competition. You can wait too long or you can move to early. Either one of those scenarios can lead to lost customers. If I were to guess right now I'd say Facebook has moved to fast and too early. Having said that I think there is a good chance that people will settle down and relax over the next week or two. That's the typical scenario when Facebook rolls out new changes. Facebook may actually be in a bit of trouble if things don't play out that way.

On a related note, Google+ is now open to anyone who wants to join so if you've been thinking about checking it out and are annoyed with Facebook now's as good a time as any. Having said that, I'm not leaving Facebook any time soon. I find the two services to be complimentary though I prefer Google+.

Image via Wikipedia
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