This blog piece really supplements the points made in this article (link above ). The points below are essentially to further amplify and expand on the contentions in this piece.
Early adopters will recall Facebook as a rickety, buggy apps which had very few people who had gotten on to the bandwagon and a whole lot more of bugs together with a generally pretty crappy UI. While after the dot.com bust at the beginning of this century, clueless commentators & hapless analysts have been desperate to hype any emerging trend to the skies, Facebook progressed & grew beyond its wildest dreams more because it happened to be in the right place at the right time & owing to the many errors of omission & commission by its forerunners & contemporaries.
All through this spectacular growth story, Facebook kept on playing fast & footloose with the privacy & the needs of some of its serious users. It kept on playing around with its UI, which, despite several makeover attempts, remained crappy & reminded many people of Web 0.5 rather than Web 2.0. It was a hacker’s delight and it put up a brave front every time someone demonstrated the relative ease with which it could be hacked into. It kept on experimenting with the length of texts for posts & comments for posts without so much as a by-your-leave or even a warning to most unsuspecting users. It merrily downgraded photographs uploaded for display, a fact unknown to most of the hordes for whom uploading to Facebook pics of your latest vacation or your dog became a status symbol of sorts.
While Facebook has of late been demonstrating a zeal for real names (because Google+ is a real name network from the time the beta was launched? ) for much of its existence, it didn’t give a damn about who registered on the network, beyond the cursory reminder that pre-teens were not allowed. I know of several people who promptly proceeded to have Facebook accounts for their dogs & cats & even proudly proclaimed the ‘fact’ to their friends. Many others opened multiple accounts on Facebook, under a host of pseudonyms & assumed names and let their ‘special’ friends know which account they used for which purpose (for a hint think Farmville & Cityville and the need to conceal from a certain ‘set’ of friends the fact that one was incurably addicted to it). In any case Facebook didn’t care two hoots about what got on to your Stream from numerous Farmville posts for example, auto-generated when your friends got on to it. Messages & pokes from perfect strangers followed the same pattern. Anybody could write anything on your wall or read your comments to others’ posts in many cases, without you either knowing or being able to do anything about it. Your friends could add you on to any groups they happened to be a part of, without bothering to think whether you may actually be reluctant or unwilling to join a particular group they happen to be part of.
When serious users & geeks raised howls of protest about this, Facebook embarked on the first of its many hamhanded attempts to appease the unhappy & outraged users & introduce controls for users’ accounts & privacy. At times deliberately and, on other occasions, unintentionally, patching & taking care of a particular area of concern seemed to open up new cracks & areas of unhappiness.
Amidst all this, Facebook’s numbers kept growing because for the vast majority of people, privacy, security or poor user UIs & unannounced, ad-hoc restrictions mattered little. Aside from registering one’s dog & cat, it became an online rolodex for many and once its numbers grew beyond a certain threshold, peer pressure ensured that most people felt compelled to open an account on Facebook at least to prove to their friends that they weren’t anti-social in the least and kept themselves abreast of new developments in this ‘digital age’. Some proceeded to ‘befriend’ just about any Johnny who could be found on FB & was willing to be added, thus growing their no. of friends relatively quickly into the high 3-digits category, assuming that this fact alone gave them some kind of a bragging right over their friends whose ‘friend counts’ were nowhere near that. If you have seen posts or comments from anything more than 10% – 15% of your ‘friends’ on Facebook, you must belong to an exceptional minority indeed!
Facebook has from time to time quoted the total no. of people who have registered. Information regarding what percentage or numbers out of these have been dormant and for how long, hasn’t been forthcoming. Whereas e-mail clients knock off users who haven’t had any activity on their account for say 6 months or one year, Facebook never ever knocks off anyone and makes it virtually impossible for anyone to leave even if he or she wants to. It has always been designed to be a one-way street.
There are many who suffered through all the twists & turns of a badly designed & executed app like Facebook simply because by the time they decided it was decidedly crappy and were planning to leave, most of their ‘friends’ had gotten on to it. Added to it was the fact that it was the most visible and high-profile social media platform in most parts of the world and hence there was peer pressure to at least stay on nominally, irrespective of whether one liked or hated the experience. Along the way of course there were the added attractions of games, pages for organizations & businesses and e-commerce among others. Facebook also managed its marketing & media efforts quite well, aside from the misfortune of getting caught out in its efforts to deliberately and, in a sustained way, slander Google.
To use an analogy which will be quite understandable to Indian readers, you don’t start with an Ambassador car and then try to make it into a Honda City say, by periodically tinkering with the carburretor, steering wheel or spark plugs. Despite any tweaks to these subsystems the overall experience would still remain a distinctly unsatisfactory one. Of course from time to time groups of people just switched off & turned to various alternatives and though that outflow has gotten stronger in recent months, overall, it didn’t really matter much. There were always newer markets to conquer & newer people to sucker and, as a result, the total numbers kept growing, albeit at a much slower pace than what had been experienced sometime earlier.
All through this process, Facebook copied bits & pieces from here & there and then once it grew big and attracted major funds, went on a spree acquiring smaller, promising start-ups. It kept tweaking privacy settings, UIs & groups but never ever came up with the big idea or a really innovative one. Copying others has always been its forte which was amply evident when it revamped Groups and made it as close as possible to popular e-groups which had been in existence for ages, with a few more bells & whistles added.
Ergo, its desperate strategy of copying Google+ & Twitter now & remaining relevant & hopefully ahead in the race is nothing surprising. Given its near-total bankruptcy of big ideas & innovative ones, one would in fact have been quite surprised if it hadn’t done so.
In doing so however it has given short shrift to much of its loyal user base. Most of Facebook’s active users aren’t too bothered about privacy & possibly quite like the idea of broadcasting to the world what they had that morning for breakfast and taking a peek at comments made by their ‘friends’ for posts which should not concern them normally. Much like Twitter, Facebook possibly owed its growth & success to the fact that it managed to adhere largely to the KISS (Keep It Simple & Stupid ) principle which would have been comforting to most of its users. It had a great opportunity to distinguish itself from johnnies-come-lately like Google+ which quite a few people might find somewhat complicated & confusing to test-drive & muster. Alas, in its desperation, it is trying its best to become another Google+ by churning out poor versions & pale imitations of G+’s major features without realizing that, in the medium & long-term, it can’t win the battle with Google because Google, in addition to being the big honchos of Search, has its fingers in over half -a-dozen apps like YouTube, Picasa, Documents, Reader, Calendar, Talk & Maps, in addition to having control over cloud computing, browsers, operating systems & even mobile hardware companies now. And, end of the day, content and its easy shareability & deliverability rules above all else, doesn’t it?
Jerry Yang and his co-founders were the Internet big honchos in the late 90s, having their fingers in everything from Searches to E-mails, E-groups, News portals & Blogs among others. It took less than a decade for it to be reduced to the status of an also-ran in virtually each of these areas. Given the fact that upward spiral & downward plunge cycles have gotten shorter in the Internet era, one finds it hard to visualize Facebook & Zuckerberg five years from now as anything other than an also-ran, still bent on mindlessly copying from the newer games in town what they perceive as ‘killer-features’, to regain lost glory. Didn’t someone tell them that mere imitation is not only the best form of flattery but also the first big steps towards ceding a position of leadership?
A couple of instances of how patchy Facebook’s hasty makeover is:
1. Facebook now allows you to choose from among lists. Unlike g+ though which allows you to select one or more circles, just an individual even or all circles, extended circles & public, Facebook gives you the choice of choosing a particular list, a predefined category like Friends or Public generally which is far more restrictive in addition to not being intuitive at all.
Facebook appears to be forming Smart-lists of friends by primarily selecting those among your friends who post or comment much more frequently than others. Sadly, this can hardly be the basis for your default choice of ‘good friends’. While one can manage & tweak the list as desired, the default option seems downright hazardous. Remember when Buzz tried to do something similar and it blew up in their face (possibly helped along by Facebook, its media managers & ‘friendly’ blogs & publications).
Facebook now lets you follow folks who opt to be Subscribed to. How is that any different from Pages that one may have elected to follow earlier? Extending the page functionality to individuals & making it an opt-in feature can hardly be called a major innovation or upgrade, isn’t it?
- Facebooks Uphill Battle With Google+ Just Got Steeper (paulspoerry.com)
- Facebook Becomes More Like Twitter, Google+ (clickfire.com)
- Waiting For The Demise of Google+ – Don’t Hold Your Breath