Yet another controversy has erupted around Facebook (the recent Terms of Service PR disaster having barely scabbed over) in the last few days, this time around the redesign of the Facebook user "Home" page (the profile page was redesigned last year), which is adding a real-time feed more along the lines of micro-blogging service Twitter.
While I personally am all for that change, having been an ardent Twitter user since early last year, there has been plenty of backlash from Facebook users about the extent of these changes. And all of the usual suspects of the blogosphere are weighing in, with heavy-weights like TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington and Robert Scoble siding with Facebook’s right to basically do what it wants with the free service it provides.
Even going so far as arguing that listening to your customer too much can be counterproductive. Here is a quote from Mike Arrington’s piece "No! Never Surrender To Your Users, Facebook.":
In an interview last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked with me about how users are willing to accept change over time, and that Facebook would continue to push things along. Suddenly, though, they surrender because a few users have a belly ache over a redesign.
If they wanted to make these changes anyway, they shouldn’t have titled their blog post “Responding to Your Feedback.” They should have just continued to ignore the ranting, and announced further changes. Showing that you’re listening to feedback just invites more of it.
Someday, if they’re not careful, someone is going to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace, who in turn did it to Friendster. Making users happy is a suckers game. Pushing the envelope is what makes you a winner.
While I can see their point to a degree, social media represent a whole new ballgame in many ways, which it makes it harder to predict what will happen. While these “A camel is a horse designed by committee" ideas may have validity in the realm of physical product design (Scoble is using a quote from a mentor about the problems with crowd-sourcing the design of a Porsche), I would hold that things may not be so straight-forward in the digital/social media realm:
1) Facebook already had several cases where it needed to retreat in shame from changes to the Facebook platform, the biggest among them the Beacon activity-tracking system that caused such privacy concerns and general outrage among Facebook users that it had to basically be abandoned.
More recently, the above-mentioned Facebook Terms of Service (TOS) debate around changes that appeared to give Facebook almost complete, irrevocable control over a users data and images even PAST the closing of an account, brought forth a similat swift user community response, and backing off by Facebook (for now to the original TOS, with supposedly a crowd-sourced version being on the way).
So with this partial retreat by Facebook, incidentally again due to privacy concerns, they’re really batting 0 for 3. One would think that they would be wising up on the PR front by now. And so much for "Zuckerberg never backs down"…
2) Much of this is not really surprising since Facebook’s users are perfectly empowered through Facebook’s platform:
Perfect for sharing photos with your friends, and throwing virtual sheep at them, but also perfect as a virtual soapbox to… complain about changes to Facebook’s platform.
With Facebooks recent full-scale mainstreaming, bringing it’s rate of new user adoption to well over 1 Million a day, one of the side effects is that now, even if only 1% of users strenuously object to something, that’s still close to 3 Million people howling.
And after all, it is called SOCIAL media, so most controversial/high impact messages have a tendency to spread virally, aided by speed of light technologies, AND Facebook cannot come off as looking patently anti-social.
So while Steve Gillmor is arguing that inertia would tend to win out, I’d say that he may be underestimating the righteous indignation that can come with perceived violations of SOCIAL trust.
Certainly there is room for back and forth here, but at some point, if the rubber band is stretched too far, it could snap. Users could turn their collective backs on Facebook, especially since the internet all around Facebook’s so-called "Walled Garden" is always continuing to hustle, and to add to the functionality available with quantum-leap innovations all of the time, making it less and less necessary for users to be locked into Facebook.
3) Which brings me to my last point: Facebook, having started from an, admittedly elegant (especially in comparison to MySpace) but mostly static, user profile page, has already been changing in response to "the rise of feeds". First the profile was redigned to look and feel more like FriendFeed, leaving a lot of the social apps to languish and whither on a back tab when compared to before (I certainly haven’t used many anymore since that point).
Next, the meteoric rise of Twitter, and its persistent "attention hogging", especially with the "hip early adopter" crowd, prompted an attempt by Facebook to buy Twitter (though the offer was mostly in hard to value Facebook stock), and now the redesign of the user’s homepage to look suspiciously like Twitter with it’s realtime feed of friends’ updates and activities.
But the truth is that Facebook users may not be ready for this level of speed, which Twitter users have already "living and breathing" for months or years at this point. Since I’ve been piping my Twitter updates to Facebook status updates, I’ve always worried that it was overloading my Facebook friends, and have recently throttled the pass-through way down.
So the jury is out whether Facebook users are en masse willing to take it to that level, or for that matter make use of the new possibilities of opening up one’s updates to the world (and thereby to Google to index). And since everyone all around Facebook is sharing things (like photos, which Facebook already just said in its TOS attempt it wants to hoard for itself), it may be hard to both maintain the Walled Garden, as well as open up Facebook in ways that could steal Twitter’s thunder.
So no, I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg has a completely free hand to play anymore. The ghosts that the sorcerers apprentice has called may prove harder and harder to call back. The monster that is Facebook is becoming harder and harder to control.
This should be fun to watch…