Facebooking the Future

Introduction

Facebook was founded in 2003 in a Harvard dorm room. Eight years, one movie, and 800 million users later, Facebook has elevated creator Mark Zuckerberg to the world’s youngest self-made billionaire and is by far the dominant social network. However, the world of technology is fickle, and we have seen the rise and fall of similar companies like AOL and Myspace. Stagnant companies are vulnerable to competition that pushes the limits of design and technology to make better products. Myspace was once the dominant social network, and it remained largely the same over the years. Myspace was pushed to make changes when Facebook began to steal its limelight, but by the time it did, it was too late. “In this industry, you can’t rest on your laurels,” said Morgan Doocy, a lecturer of web technology at UW, who is familiar in web design and user interface.

Over the years, Facebook has gone through many changes. While some were subtle and others drastic, it’s hard to remember when our profiles were collections of boxes and applications. However, users couldn’t miss the avalanche of changes that were made over the last couple months. Are these changes solutions in search of problems, or are they for the best?

The Layout

Most visible of recent changes are the ones to Facebook’s layout. Some are very vocally opposed to these changes. It’s very difficult to remain innovative once a product has a critical user-base. “After a month or two, users become settled into a norm and they become fixated on it, and it makes it difficult for them to adapt to a new feature that [Facebook] thinks is better,” said Doocy, speaking on the tension between familiarity and innovation.

While once divided into “Most Recent” (all posts in chronological order) and “Top News” (only posts Facebook thinks you’ll want to read), the new unified newsfeed presents all posts in one list. The top of the feed has the most recent posts, but most of the newsfeed is prioritized according to what Facebook thinks you will want to read. Facebook makes this assumption based on whom you interact with, the posts you’ve liked, and those on which you’ve commented. Content that’s less relevant, like songs that people are listening to on Spotify, no longer clutter your newsfeed, but are instead moved over to the news ticker, a real-time newsfeed that lives on the right hand side of the page.

The news ticker is a bit peculiar, and has been criticized for making the homepage too messy. Instead of looking only at static content, we now have a box of dynamic content that follows us around. It does make the page feel a little cluttered, but it doesn’t actually cover anything up, and users can even adjust the amount of space it occupies.

Still, the news ticker is a big point of controversy. It shows people’s statuses and comments seconds after they’ve been posted, and auto-refreshes so it is never behind the times. Some cry, “Now there is no privacy!” Facebook has had privacy concerns in the past, including the monetization of users’ personal information and automatically opting users into new features. Given this history, such concerns are perfectly valid.

And yet, the news ticker doesn’t show any content that hasn’t been seen on Facebook in some other place or form. Despite showing the same content, “the news ticker is a lot more blatantly obvious,” said Professor Jan Spyridakis, chair of the HCDE department. It may be surprising to constantly see things as people post them, and it might make us wonder who is watching our activity. “I think it may cause a lot of people to be more cautious about posting,” Spyridakis added. However, observing the amount of content posted via the news ticker should give us cause to reflect on what we post, and exactly how public that is. It may feel like Facebook is prominently displaying our dirty underwear, but the question we really ought to ask ourselves is, “Why did I upload that in the first place?”

Identity Crisis

Facebook has never had qualms about expanding their capabilities into the territory of other companies. Although Foursquare pioneered “checking in” and location-based social networking, Facebook was quick to compete with their own service, Facebook Places [CQ]. Furthermore, two of the most recent feature additions to Facebook are shots across the bow of other social networks. I’m talking about “subscribe,” a feature that allows users to see posts from people they are not friends with, and “smart lists,” a way for users to organize friends into smaller, more organized groups.

Similar to Twitter, subscriptions allow people to see the posts of individuals without adding them as friends. Don’t worry; strangers can’t see your posts unless you specifically enable subscriptions. This provides a good way for public figures to interact with fans like they do on Twitter, but within a social network with broader capabilities. However, interacting with friends is fundamentally different from interacting with fans, and it remains to be seen if this hybrid approach will catch on.

Smart lists allow for the organization of your friends into groups. This enables users to post content to a more specific set of people, which is good if you have something to say that you don’t necessarily want the whole world to see. You can also see the activity of people of one group without all the distractions of the unfiltered newsfeed. Though users can manually create and curate these lists, Facebook will suggests its own lists, as well as suggesting additions to current lists based on your interactions with friends. For instance, the friends with whom you correspond the most are suggested for the “Close Friends” list. Similar functionality was first seen in Google+’s “Circles,” and some might say that Facebook’s implementation of this feature is simply a cheap imitation.

Is Facebook suffering from an identity crisis? Purists and fanboys might cry bloody murder when Facebook implements a feature first seen in another company’s product. However, the adoption of the best ideas is how every industry has always moved forward.

“Facebook is smart to adapt and try to really intelligently incorporate new ideas, even other people’s, in order to remain competitive,” said Doocy. “Say what you will about Facebook’s revisions, but Facebook’s design and usability over the years has been groundbreaking and leading.”

If Facebook wishes to keep its hold on social networking, building off the ideas of others is part of the game.

The Future

Facebook has undoubtedly established itself as the dominant social network, and, despite competition from Google, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Looking forward, the objectives of social networking and Facebook are still about connecting people and sharing content, and Facebook is working hard to make it easier for us to do so.

Less than a month ago, at their annual f8 Conference [CQ], Facebook announced a major redesign to the Facebook profile that they are calling “Timeline.” Timeline attempts to chronicle our lives, organizing stories and photos in chronological order and highlighting pivotal moments. Users are encouraged to add “life events,” especially ones that happened before they joined Facebook. Though users will be given complete control to remove anything from the Timeline, it could represent more privacy concerns. With this redesign, Facebook hopes to connect with users on a more emotional level, a connection that could prove invaluable in establishing a loyal and passionate fan base. Such a fan base will be needed if Facebook hopes to continue growing.

“Companies can reach a higher order of magnitude when they move on from their original idea and expand to new places,” said Doocy, speaking on Facebook in comparison to other tech companies. Though it is arguably not one of the most important companies in technology, Facebook has a bright future. Facebook began in the dorm room of an enthusiastic college student, in a fashion similar to that of tech giants Google and Microsoft. Amazon started as an online distributer of books, and is now one of the world leaders in online shopping, cloud services, and digital content distribution. In short, Facebook has been revolutionary in social networking, but in order to have the influence of the big dogs, it will likely have to move beyond its origins.

Conclusion

Any company that grows from a start-up in a dorm room to an international company with over half a billion users is going to have some growing pains. While changes sometimes are disruptive to our own usage of Facebook, most of us can agree that it’s far improved from the old, messy layout of boxes and applications. Social networking has come a long way, and, largely, Facebook has led us there. It’s impossible to tell what the next big thing is, or where Facebook will go. But that said, Facebook is a fascinating company, and their future is as bright as any other’s.


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