Part One: Is Facebook’s Size Its Strength, or Vulnerability?
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
We’re taking a two-part look at the dual challenges facing social networking giant Facebook: increased complexity and decreased privacy. First, we explore whether the constant addition of new features is complicating the user experience, making it less fun and more work. In our second report, we’ll look at criticisms that the network’s unprecedented accumulation of users’ private detail is, in the words of some, “creepy.”
For just about as long as there’s been a Facebook, there have been those predicting its demise. Like newspapers, the California-based firm, in the eyes of its critics at least, has been hovering on the edge of failure for years. And yet somehow, it keeps going. And going…and going.
Just consider for a moment: U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the top commander of the NATO forces that pursued Muamar Gadhafi, first confirmed the mission’s end not via the Associated Press or Al Jazeera, but on his Facebook account. Facebook reports “more than 800 million active users,” meaning users that have visited the site in the last 30 days, with fully three-quarters of those living somewhere other than the United States. It’s almost become cliche now to note that if Facebook were a continent, it would have a larger population than all of Europe.
Yet many aren’t satisfied.
“I can’t find anything on Facebook anymore,” writes Michael Hartt, one of my many Facebook “friends” who responded to my questions about how they now use the social network. “While I’ve noticed a decrease in activity overall,” notes Ed Davis, “I’ve noticed an increase in annoying activity, like sharing other peoples’ ‘inspirational’ photos in a ‘status shuffle’ kind of way.” Adds Peter Hassett: “I haven’t checked my Facebook in weeks,” which is curious for someone responding to my recent Facebook question just hours after I posted it.
Annoying, complicated, intrusive; complaints like this are nothing new. The web, and Facebook itself, is full of places where users grouse about this change or that tweak. But the criticisms are starting to pile up – and so are the critics. Even former Facebook president Sean Parker told a tech conference recently: “Maybe the strategic threat to Facebook is that power users have gone to Twitter or power users have gone to Google+.”
The question now: is something new happening? Could Facebook’s phenomenal growth be slowing, or even fading?
“There’s a growing ‘ick’ factor with Facebook,” says Judy Shapiro. “I think it’s getting worse…I think it’s gone over the complexity edge.”
Shapiro is founder and CEO of Engage Simply, a marketing commerce firm, and has heard all the criticisms before. She’s one of the critics, but not before she was a fan. In mid-2009, Shapiro wrote admiringly that Facebook’s core value was the trust people felt in assembling their social networks:
“Facebook started as a way for college kids to connect with their trusted peers (trusted only in the sense that they went to the same university, but hey — trust is fluid depending on the context). These students already shared a bond, they were already part of an existing community and Facebook provided the platform that let people bolster these sticky connections. Further, as Facebook grew it was able to attract a mass audience because it expanded by staying true to its very DNA — its ability to let people make trusted connections. It was a killer strategy and a risky move, but it is now paying off.”
Shapiro says Facebook worked because people trusted it, and it was, in her words, “flat” – meaning that everyone in your network was treated equally. But little more than a year later, the admiration had worn off. At just the time Facebook was exploding globally, Shapiro in 2010 wrote that rapidly expanding features, increased complexity, and the ‘creepy’ nature of highly targeted advertisements based on private information could spell its doom. “In chasing scale, they used “feature sprawl” to attract users and in doing so made the Facebook experience more and more complex, imposing a tax that ultimately would not be borne by users,” she wrote.
At the time, it was not a popular opinion; especially among her marketing colleagues who had built strategies around Facebook. “I couldn’t get a single marketing executive to talk to me,” she says. After all, how could Facebook be in trouble? It was still growing by leaps and bounds, wasn’t it?
Yes, and no. Some analyses have suggested while overall numbers for social networks like Facebook and Twitter are still growing globally, the rate of growth is slowing significantly. Twitter executives liked to boast of having 200 million users, but this September they admitted only about half are “active” users. Further, this study, released in June, charts first-ever user declines on Facebook in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Norway and Russia – the first four early adopter nations, and the last where the social network VKontakte is starting to compete with Facebook. That suggests not just users who have grown bored with the service, but people actively deleting their accounts.
Facebook did not respond to VOA’s numerous requests for comment. However earlier this year, they did challenge the validity of those studies. “We are very pleased with our growth and with the way people are engaged with Facebook,” a spokesperson told TechRadar. “More than 50 per cent of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day.”
Whether deleting their profiles or just opting not to come back, there’s no denying that every day people stop using Facebook, and those numbers are growing in Britain, the United States and other early adopter nations. It’s a process Welsh journalist Aled Blake calls “falling out of love with Facebook.” Among the prime reasons cited by those leaving is Facebook’s increasing complexity.
“From a complexity point of view, it’s getting very difficult,” says Judy Shapiro. “You go on there now and there’s five different things you have to bat away before you get what you want.”
Just this year, Facebook released a wide array of new features that, so far at least, appear to have fallen flat. The “News Feed” – all those updates on your friends’ activities – now employs complex algorithms that adjust what shows up based on your recent activity. New “Timeline” and “Ticker” tools are designed to help users customize their profile and interactions, but have not found favor. Increased tracking of your interactions means that Facebook simply stops showing you some of your friends unless you actively seek them out. And its “Facial Recognition” feature? The one that automatically searched its vast photo archives to find and tag unlabeled pictures of you? “Creepy,” summed up PC World‘s Sarah Jacobsson Purewal. Facebook pulled back.
“Subscribe” vs. “Friend.” Personal vs. Fan pages. Facebook Ads vs. “Sponsored Stories.” What began with just Wall Posts and “pokes” has evolved into what can be a bewildering experience that feels more like work than play. “New Facebook is just too much work,” sighs British commentator David John Mead, echoing the thoughts of many. “Every time I go on there it seems I have to do something to accommodate their new feature. Facebook never seems to be doing anything for me.”
It’s exactly that sentiment that executives at UnThink.com hope to tap. Publicly launched this week, UnThink aggressively bills itself as “the anti-Facebook.” Among the differences, UnThink subscribers will be able to choose the ads they want to appear on their pages, or eliminate them altogether. (That option costs $2 dollars each year, so it is basically free.) And with over 100,000 new registrations in just the first few days, UnThink might be getting some traction. But the road ahead is very long; even behemoth Google is having troubles toppling Facebook from its social network dominance.
How has Facebook remained “King of the Hill” while others have faded? One big reason is probably the same thing that irritates some users: Facebook is a closed system. Legally, Facebook – and not the user – owns all the private information, contacts, photos and other material you add to its site; that’s guaranteed by all the legal text you probably skipped over by clicking on ‘Agree to Terms’ when you joined.) “You can’t take it with you, it’s trapped in their environment,” notes Shapiro. So while joining Facebook is free and simple, leaving it is not. And the longer you’ve been on Facebook, renewing friendships, sharing memories and uploading videos of special moments, the harder it may be to leave. Which is exactly the idea; as Facebook has grown into a targeted marketing giant, all that personal information becomes their most valuable asset. Says Shapiro: “In Facebook, you and I are the product.”
But giants have been dethroned before. Just look at AOL, or Netscape or, more recently, MySpace. Launched in mid-2003, MySpace shot to the top of the most visited websites, adding over 100 million users in a matter of years. As late as 2007, it was the most visited social networking site on the planet, but not for long. Users drifted away, traffic plummeted, and although MySpace is still in operation, nobody would say MySpace is a serious challenger in social networking these days.
So is Facebook’s size its chief asset, or vulnerability? Surprisingly, Judy Shapiro argues the latter.
“Size is useful when appropriately applied in a communications context. Size is not necessarily a wonderful thing to sell stuff. There are many, many studies that speak to the challenge of using Facebook productively and profitably. At some point, marketers are going to say ‘Screw this. OK fine, you’re the biggest thing, but I don’t know what to do with you.’ And because it’s so big, it’s impossible to sell anything…it’s the wrong model.”
Facebook executives, and many other marketers, would strenuously disagree. After all, it was just this month that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was rated by Forbes Magazine as the 9th most powerful person in the world, one spot ahead of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has an actual army at his disposal. But members and boosters of Zuckerberg’s virtual army go online millions of times every day; updating, sharing, friending and doing all the other things “Friends” do. And even if only half of those registered with Facebook continue to use it, that still makes Facebook perhaps the single largest holder of private information, ever.
No wonder some people find it all “just a little creepy.” Next, we’ll explore Facebook’s other prime challenge: what’s now being called “The Creepy Factor.”