What Facebook Needs to do to Not be Boring

23 Mar ’08

Forget “don’t be evil” – what about ‘don’t be boring’? Most of the people I know who used to spend time on Facebook don’t bother anymore. Why not? I bet it’s the same reason I don’t: Facebook is boring.

And this is a shame, because at heart the idea of a massive social network – a network that allows us to do useful things with others and that we give permission to collect all manner of information about what we do, with whom, when and why, is a pretty powerful and, well, useful, idea. But Facebook is not doing the job of being useful very well, and my sense is that it’s on the way out. I expect traffic is still growing, but that’s almost certainly growth at the shallow end of the pool – late adopters, people who’ve just bought their first computer, and so on (just kidding – sort of). I think that if Facebook doesn’t quickly get on with the business of providing real utility, this is going to be a problem for it. These days Twitter is stealing Facebook’s lunch money and the reason is simple – Twitter is useful.

How is Facebook not useful? Let me count the ways. First, why isn’t there a native capability to recommend to me people I should meet? The first best thing about friends is being with them, but the next best thing is making more of them. This is a powerfully useful thing – regardless of why you want to meet those new friends. Facebook knows who my “friends” are, knows with whom I message, knows the movies I like, the books I like, the music I like, where I live, what schools I went to, and so on. If anyone knows who I might like to friend, Facebook does. This feels to me like a killer app for social networking, and I don’t understand why Facebook won’t dive in.

Next, why won’t Facebook tell me what movies I should watch? Ditto TV shows, books and music? There are already tools that allow me to manually input this information, and some tools that collect it automatically – plug-ins for iTunes, for example. Why, when I buy a DVD or book from Amazon, do I not have the option of having a reminder pop up in Facebook a week later to remind me to rate it? Why can’t I rate the music I listen to? But more to the point, right now, all of this is work I do to help other people – the authors, artists and other Facebook members. But why, with all of that data and everything else Facebook knows about me, isn’t Facebook doing something for me – why isn’t it recommending choices to me, as well as recommending people who share those interests?

Next, what about web content? When I post something to Facebook, why isn’t Facebook analyzing that content, and drawing inferences about me, my interests and people who might share them? Right now a posted item sits on my Facebook page like lump of coal. Great – I put it there to make it useful to someone else – but again, why isn’t Facebook using that information to do something useful for me?

There are loads of other possibilities.

I know Facebook is interested in doing something useful for someone – the Beacon episode makes it clear that advertisers are a big priority. That’s fine of course – but Facebook needs to spend less time on perfecting the art of being shallow and ephemeral entertainment and more time on being useful to its users.

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