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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Me January 11, 2011 at 20:02

How is it remotely ‘useful’ … honestly…

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Shannon Cole March 31, 2008 at 09:09

I agree completely. I was initially enamored with Facebook but I have found my interest dwindling to zero. Eventually it will have to adapt to keep it’s member’s interested and engaged or face a slide into oblivion. While I’m not sure having friends pushed my way would increase my interest, I agree that it need to have some kind of usefulness beyond the social aspects.

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Rob Hyndman March 30, 2008 at 09:39

I’m looking forward to it, Mark. It certainly helps to think of FB as an early iteration. Is it my imagination, or are the waves getting shorter? :)

Interesting, Blaise – in my case, I know very few of my FB friends in person – ditto twitter – I’ve never met them :) And most of the people I know have moved on from FB. The most common comments I hear about it now from my circle is that people haven’t been on it “in months”.

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Blaise Alleyne March 29, 2008 at 23:51

ps I actually just did get a recommended friend thing in my news feed. It said “Based on your information, it seems that you might know _____.” It wasn’t a random friend you-have-similar-interests recommendation, but a recognition that our social circles overlap.

That’s the sort of recommendation I do find useful in the context of Facebook.

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Blaise Alleyne March 29, 2008 at 01:58

Personally, I don’t want Facebook recommending friends to me. The draw, as a university student, is that Facebook adds a virtual component to real communities and real connections. Virtually everyone I am friends with on Facebook, I actually know in person. That differentiates it from networks like MySpace.

Also, maybe I just have more friends or more active friends using Facebook, but I don’t find it boring at all. It’s easy for most people I know to get sucked in and spend hours looking through content their friends have uploaded. I find the news feed preferences extremely useful, and I’m subscribed to a few of my friend’s feeds through my RSS reader (posted items, notes..).

I mean, there’s always room for improvement, but in the demographic I’m familiar with it seems pretty hard to find people who would say Facebook is boring. (Stupid, maybe. Addictive, probably. Boring, no.)

Just my two cents though…

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Mark Federman March 23, 2008 at 17:44

Ah, I get what you’re saying. Facebook *should* become a cross among LinkedIn, Twitter, Amazon recommendations, Google ads, and … Hey, you forgot bringing in an aspect of Second Life! What, projecting your inner whacked-out fantasy character from an adolescent roleplay isn’t also useful to you?

Let’s consider the larger context of what’s happening, and why what has gone before seems boring in such a short period of time.

Facebook is useful not for what it does, or what it could do. It is useful as an evolutionary exemplar in the move from the broadcast mentality to the UCaPP mentality. Like all the other examples during this peak of the nexus phase we’re traversing, Facebook will hand off to the next big thing, that will hand off to the next big thing afterwards. Collectively, these all help to reshape the cognitive environment in which my children, and my future grandchildren will make sense of a world that becomes ever more distant from that of my own grandparents. Each stepping stone by itself is nothing special in the large scheme of time; collectively, they create a fascinating and remarkable path to the future, as such changes have done in epochs long passed.

In particular, Facebook creates multiple connections among multiple ways of interacting among people. Any particular valence connection is not supremely dominant (ie. having some sort of authority or dominance over any other). As some of us saw in the Chris Avenir vs. Ryerson episode, being administrator does not carry with it authority or responsibility in the conventional sense of being accountable to some other, even higher authority. Rather, we learn that our conventional notions of leadership, authority, membership, connection, and identity creation are all very different than the modernist world in which you and I were socialized would have us believe. Ryerson administrators had a tough time with this; thankfully they made as right a decision as they could under the circumstances.

Of course, these thoughts apply not only to Facebook, but to other artefacts of the UCaPP world, such as those mentioned above, Wikipedia (and the other Wiki-thingamabobs), and… well, you probably know more of them than I do, given the location in which you sit, and the folks you mesh around with.

All of these – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Wiki-stuff, Second Life, Amazon, Google – all of them, are *content* insofar as they are functional aspects of an environment that defines and creates the conditions of Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity. (In other words, to coin a phrase, the medium is the message). You think this stuff is advanced and changes the world? Quite literally, we ain’t seen nothing yet: think back to the world as it was about 100 years ago, and then set sights for 100 years in the future. That’s when, in my not-so-humble opinion, our world will be truly settled into the age of electric communication.

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Rob Hyndman March 23, 2008 at 11:04

Well, I don’t know – but we are intensely social animals and it’s worth a try. They’re sitting on a treasure – they need to get busy figuring out how it can be made useful for members.

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Ben Lucier March 23, 2008 at 11:01

Bang on Rob. All that data, and nothing intelligent being done with it. As a side note, as time goes on, I’m beginning to think we’re a minority when it comes to Facebook and even Twitter. It would be interesting to see how many Facebook users would actually make use of a “recommend a friend” feature if it existed. You and I would… but what about the other ten million?

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