Like, oh, around 750 million other users of Facebook, I logged on to the world’s biggest social media network this morning and was immediately annoyed. Facebook had changed its user interface, again. Gone was the “Most Recent” button, which allowed users to see what their friends have posted in a simple, straightforward, chronological order. Now Facebook was indulging, again, in outright effrontery: employing its own secret algorithmic sauce to highlight what it considered the most important “top stories,” while mixing in other recent posts far below.
Facebook also added a “Ticker” at the top right hand side of the page, which provided a real-time Twitter-like stream of status updates from all my friends. When I first checked it, it was packed with complaints about the new interface change. Judging solely from comments from my friends, people don’t want Facebook deciding what’s most important, Facebook’s suggestions were wrong, irrelevant and insulting, and why oh why oh why can’t Facebook leave a good thing alone?
Oh, and people hate change. And, goddammit, they’re switching to Google+ (which conveniently opened its doors to the general public today), or Twitter, or giving up on the Internet altogether.
When you disgruntle nearly a billion people, it becomes fairly big news, right away: The biggest tech news sites were on the story in nanoseconds. Moments after I encountered the interface change, TechCrunch was offering the almost instantaneously obsolete “How to Go Back to the Previous Facebook Interface (While You Still Can)” while Gizmodo ambitiously promised Everything You Need to Know About the New Facebook Update.
Experienced users of Facebook nearly collapsed from the overwhelming déjà vu. More than any other consumer-facing company, Facebook routinely makes fairly major tweaks to its user interface in ways that surprise and discomfit and piss off its users. But so far, at least, the users always get over it. The pattern is set in stone. First there’s a big uproar, then a flurry of suggested workarounds that will either revert the changes back to the idyllic past or otherwise nullify the most outrageous new abuses of our sensibilities. Some of these workarounds work, and some don’t. Occasionally Facebook rolls back some particularly egregious privacy violation. But usually, the uproar soon subsides. We return to our gossip, snark and embarrassing family photos. And Facebook continues its inexorable growth.
We don’t ultimately leave for a very simple reason: The golden fetters of the network effect. We’re locked in by the comprehensiveness of the Facebook universe. We might look longingly at Google+, but is that where the birth of a friend’s new baby will get announced? Is that where your sister will post the picture of the lewd nun?
The dynamic is beyond irritating: The fact that Facebook user complaints never amount to anything much probably emboldens Facebook in its behavior.
But amid all of our grumbling, we should probably be paying closer attention. Because Facebook is clearly up to something. On the one hand, it seems like Facebook is intent on imitating or co-opting everything its competitors are up to. The recent introduction of Friends Lists and the Subscribe button enable far more granular control of what you see in your News feed (and what your friends see from you). That seems like a clear response to Google+. The Ticker, as already mentioned, reeks of Twitter.
And there’s clearly more of the same (that is to say, constant discombobulating change) coming down the pike. The trade press is rife with rumors of even more significant changes to Facebook that could be rolled out as soon as Thursday at Facebook’s f8 developer conference. Details are sketchy, but the gist seems to be that Facebook wants to become the place where you consume and purchase all kinds of media — music, video, et cetera.
And that may offer a hint as to what Facebook is trying to achieve with its emphasis on deciding for you what you see when you log in. If Top Stories are determined by popularity — how many comments or “likes” they get from your friends, how much they’re shared — then anything viral will quickly move up the rankings. Facebook, in effect, will be broadcasting those Top Stories to you. If the goal is to encourage on-site e-commerce, prominently flaunting what users are excited about might be one way to achieve that.
I’m sure we’ll all be annoyed when these changes arrive. And at some point, maybe we’ll be so annoyed that we really do leave. Nothing lasts forever on the Internet — the social media universe is littered with the corpses of once-mighty networks that failed to innovate or evolve as fast as new competitors.
Which, of course, is another reason why Facebook can never stand still. To survive, it must annoy.