Friday, September 23, 2011

Facebook's Timeline And Why I'm A Doubter

Ford Model T Touring
I've covered some of this ground over the past couple of days but there are a few new thoughts here and I've refined my thinking a bit.

First of all I'm going to say that I'm not making predictions here and I'm not confident I'm right. As I've alluded to in my previous couple of entries though I do have a nagging suspicion that a lot of people are looking at Facebook and their changes in a way that doesn't actually make sense. I've seen a lot of cool technologies that were loved by tech types (including myself) come and go over the years because they did not in fact appeal to a wide enough audience. This feels like a case in point. I'll be dropping this topic after today and taking a wait and see attitude though I may comment more in the future as things develop.

The first point to keep in mind is that Facebook essentially owns the social graph. This means nearly everyone you would want to communicate with is on Facebook. That includes not only your tech savvy friends but also people who are not. Different kinds of people have different priorities, needs and desires. As a long time tech geek and intermediate social networking participant I'm going to desire a different interface and volume of content than my seventy eight year old mother. This general concept explains why companies offer a variety of products in whatever market they compete in. Think cars for instance. Early in the history of the Ford motor company Henry Ford was quoted as saying you could have any color you wanted so long as it was black. Over time Ford added additional colors and models to their product line in order to entice more customers to buy from them. These customers weren't necessarily being fickle or stubborn either. If you needed to haul stuff around than a truck was much more useful than a car.

The second thing to keep in mind is that most of the people in the press who follow Facebook as well as the people creating Facebook are tech and social networking savvy. They are advanced users who handle change with much more comfort than much of the Facebook user community. The problem with this scenario is it means that a substantial % of Facebook's user base has little or no voice inside the company or from within the tech press. Their only avenue for expression is via the mechanisms Facebook provides for feedback and based on what I've been reading Facebook isn't very responsive in answering complaints that are voiced by their user community in those forums. I suspect this is because they are busy, they've seen this phenomena before and because they just don't understand what all the ruckus is about.

Facebook does have a marketing department but I wonder what the average age and background is and how comfortable they would feel saying "Hey developers, that stuff is neat and all but does it really address the needs and desires of the bulk of people using our site". I can't know for sure of course since I don't work there but based on my own workplace observations over the years I tend to suspect the answers are mostly under thirty five and "not very".

All of which leads to a very large blind spot for Facebook and the press that covers them, or so I theorize. What makes this blind spot more difficult to spot is the fact that other social networking sites don't have nearly as big a worry in this area since their customer bases are much smaller and more tech savvy.

Facebook has made changes before and after an initial period of discontent things have settled down until the next big change. Owning the social graph gives them a lot of leverage and makes it difficult for people to leave if they want to keep in touch with their friends. For the past several years there wasn't a credible alternative either which helped as well. It shouldn't be assumed though that the discontent simply goes away.  Based on comments people are making recently it's clear that much of that discontent lingers below the surface until the next change. At some point Facebook may reach a tipping point. I'm not convinced they have but I am convinced its possible. I've seen modest growth in the number of people I know on Google+ over the past week or two. At this point it's a trickle but with further changes coming it isn't outside the realm of possibility that it become a flood in the coming months. I'm not betting on that but it sure wouldn't surprise me either.

Consider also that the tech savvy types have numerous other social networking outlets where they can find both their tech savvy friends and interesting people to talk to and Facebook's dependence on their less geeky members becomes even more important/clear. If they start losing their "main street" base things will go very badly for them.

The next big change is Facebook's Timeline feature. I've read about it and checked out the demos and while it's techy cool I don't see the broader appeal primarily because it's going to take a lot of time and effort to curate it down to something manageable/attractive and I seriously doubt very many people are going to bother, particularly after the initial euphoria over the new capability wears off.

Using Facebook has increasingly become a "drink from the fire hose" experience and Timeline is just another step in that direction. It certainly has utility, particularly for people who want to make it easy for old friends who have been out of touch for awhile to catch up but is that utility enough to get people to actually maintain and read what is there?

I'm not against innovation. I am against creating products that fail to please large portions of a companies customers and it seems  to me that this is what Facebook is doing. If I were them I wouldn't give up on the innovation though. Instead I'd design my site so that it was possible for people to customize how they interact with it. By default I'd give people a very simple view that minimized the amount of clutter and information overload and maximized their ability to keep in touch with the people they cared about the most.  If you're wondering what that might look like, think Facebook three years ago or so. I'm not familiar with the FB API, but I suspect it wouldn't be hard for somebody to create a "lite" front end that minimized the bells and whistles while maximizing the experience. I'm not sure how Facebook would react to that though. Next, structure the site so people have an incentive to explore the more advanced features. Allow them to wade into the deeper parts of the pool slowly and in a way that they feel comfortable with. Also allow them to stop at any time. Not everyone is going to have the same sweet spot.

Mark Zuckerberg is one of the few humans alive today who in my opinion has the potential to be the next Steve Jobs. He's clearly brilliant and has a drive and clarity of vision that is very rare. Much like the young Steve Jobs though he isn't without his rough edges. One big question in my mind is will those rough edges eventually lead Facebook into a downward spiral or will he learn and adapt quickly enough to avoid that? As with all things, time will tell.

Image via Wikipedia
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