Thursday, 29 September 2011

Facebook Outrages Users Again

Even if someone does not use Facebook there is little way anyone online would not know that Facebook recently made changes that have angered it users. In fact, I dare say that the majority of news stories were not on the changes themselves, but rather on the outrage Facebook users have expressed towards the social networking site over those changes. While it is true that every time Facebook makes changes there are some people who are angry over those changes (anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am one of them), this time the anger on the part of users was palpable.

The primary source of ire on the part of Facebook users this time was the fact that the social networking site changed its news feed. For those who do not use Facebook, the news feed is the running list of updates one's friends have made on the site. In the past Facebook users have had a choice of viewing the "top stories" on the news feed (determined by Facebook's algorithm) or in chronological order. Recently Facebook changed this. Now the top of one's news feed is filled with "top stories," with the rest of one's new feed in chronological order down below. As the majority of Facebook users prefer to view their news feed in chronological order, this had made many, perhaps most, users very angry.

Now one can mark off updates as "top stories" removing them from the top of one's news feed, but this can be time consuming. One can also get around seeing top stories on one's news feed but creating a friend's list containing all of one's friends, but then one loses the ability to see his or her own updates in his or her news feed. In the end there is no satisfactory solution to the problem of Facebook displaying "top stories" at the top of one's news feed. Here I must point out that Facebook users' anger over the changes to the news feed are twofold. First, most Facebook users prefer to view their news feed in chronological order. They are then not very happy at having to scroll past several "top stories" or mark off several top stories to do so. In fact, I have heard some Facebook users complaint that they can no longer make sense of their news feeds. While I think of the "top stories" as an inconvenience, I cannot say that they have thrown my news feed into total chaos. Second, many Facebook users resent Facebook deciding which updates are "top stories." To wit, when Facebook first implemented these changes the topmost "top story" on my brother's news feed was an update from someone with whom he had not interacted in ages and, in fact, he had planned to unfriend. Here I must say that my experience with Facebook determining top stories has not been so bad (other than I hate taking several minutes of a morning marking them off). All of my top stories have generally been from my closest friends on Facebook and people with whom I interact regularly.

Now I have read that Facebook's changes have resulted in more views for adverts. I have to say that I very seriously doubt this. If most Facebook users are like me, they are much too busy marking off "top stories" to notice the adverts on the right hand sidebar. Indeed, I cannot tell you what the adverts were when I logged into Facebook this morning. This was not the case when my news feed was in chronological order. Because I could browse my news feed in a more causal manner, I might notice an advert if it was interesting enough. If most Facebook users are like me, then, the views on their adverts have probably fallen a good deal. Quite frankly, it would not surprise me if this was the case.

At the same time that Facebook changed the news feed, they introduced the ticker (formerly known as "Happening Now"). The ticker is a small box at the top of the right sidebar that contains a list of updates in real time (not unlike Twitter). The primary complaint about the ticker is that it shares too much information. Unless one has his or her Facebook privacy set just right, it will show literally everything, even to friends of friends. This includes gaming activity, comments, pages one has liked, new friendships, links one has added, and status updates. In some cases one could even see updates from individuals one does not even know. Of course, the way to avoid this is to set one's privacy setting so only friends can see one's updates (which is what mine has always been set to). Of course, even once one gets past the privacy concerns over the ticker, it is still annoying for many users. My brother complained that he has to be careful where he moves his mouse cursor, as if it goes over the ticker a little box will pop up obscuring whatever he is reading. Others have complained that it is just plain ugly.

Now here I must point out that if one has Firefox or Chrome he or shecan do away with the ticker by a Greasemonkey or Stylish script (for Firefox) or an extension for Chrome. I might also point out that the ticker does not display in either Safari or Opera. In the end, then, only those using Internet Explorer cannot do much about the ticker. I use Firefox and downloaded a Greasemonkey script to do away with it the day it was implemented. I have not seen it since.

Of course, Facebook users might not have been so angry if the social networking site had not introduced another change only a few weeks before changing the news feed and introducing the ticker. One of these changes was the so called "Smart Lists." Smart Lists are friend's lists that automatically assign friends to different groups. Some users were not too happy about the Smart Lists for two basic reasons. First, some users resented Facebook for creating lists for them, some of which they will never use. An example of this is myself. Facebook automatically created a "Restricted" list, on which one can place individuals who one does not want to see his or her updates. A "Restricted" list is entirely useless to me. If I do not want someone to see my updates, I will simply unfriend them. Second, as might be expected, the Smart Lists raise privacy concerns. People on lists can see that they are each on a list. Let us say that I used my Acquaintances Smart List (I do not--I have my own custom lists I use). If Tiberius and Julius are both on my Acquaintances, then they can both see that each other is on this list. This is not the case with custom lists, which can only be seen by the user who created them.

Many observers believe the Smart Lists were created in response to the Circles of Google+. If that was the case, then I must say that Facebook did a very poor job. First, Google+ does not automatically assign people to Circles. That is something the user and the user alone does. Second, while Google+ comes with some pre-made Circles, one can delete those Circles if one chooses. One cannot delete Facebook's Smart Lists. The best one can do is to hide those lists so that they do not show on one's home page and remove everyone from them. While I'll admit the Smart Lists may be useful for some, they are not particularly useful for others and for yet others they are probably a minor irritant.

Another change Facebook has made just came about recently, after the changes to the news feed and the introduction of the ticker. This was Facebook Music. Facebook Music allows one to share the music to which one listens via Spotify, Rhapsody, Turntable, or various other music services on Facebook. Now on the surface this does not sound like such a bad thing. In fact, I have enjoyed some of the music listed on Facebook and even enjoyed having that music shared via Spotify. Quite frankly, I think this is one of Facebook's better ideas of late. The problem is that not everyone wants to share everything to which they listen on Facebook. Quite simply, many users apparently do not want the world to know that they listen to Justin Bieber even though they are over the age of 12.  Because of this Spotify has been forced to create what it calls "Private Listening," whereby users can listen to Barry Manilow without their hipster friends seeing it posted on Facebook.

While users have been upset over the changes to the news feed, the introduction of the ticker, the introduction of the Smart Lists, and an apparent lack of privacy whenever one listens to anything on certain music services, I must point out that Facebook has made some changes that I happen to like. In the past any time one posted a status update, link, or any other sort of update, it would be seen by every one of his or her friends. Facebook has now made it so that one can make updates visible only to certain friend lists or even restrict certain individuals from seeing certain updates. I have found this to be particularly useful myself. In the past I always felt guilty whenever I posted anything concerning Farmville to my feed, as many of my friends who do not play the game would see yet another Farmville post (keep in mind, I've always kept my Farmville posts to a bare minimum). Now I can make it so that only my friends on Farmville see any posts I make regarding Farmville. Another use for this feature I have found is restricting posts to certain audiences. Quite simply, I do have relatives and relatives of friends under the age of 18 as friends on Facebook. For that reason I would not post anything with strong language to the social networking site in the past. Now, if I want to post a movie clip with strong language or a music video with strong language, I can simply block that particular update from everyone under the age of 18. Here I should point out that video clips with strong language are about the worst thing I post on Facebook!

Sadly, for many Facebook users, these are not the last of the changes the social networking site intends to make in the near future. Last week Facebook unveiled Timeline, According to Facebook itself, Timeline is "...a new kind of profile." In theory, at least, Timeline will show all of one's activity all the way back to when he or she jointed Facebook, in chronological order. One's information will be displayed in a box to the left, while activity on various apps will appear on the right. One can determine the individual privacy settings of these boxes or (according to a friend who already has Timeline) remove them entirely. Many users have expressed concern that Timeline could be a stalker's dream, with far too much being shared on one's profile. That having been said, my friend who already has Timeline (it is available early to Facebook Developers) has expressed no such concerns over Timeline and seems to like it a good deal. According to him, it's not that different from the way Facebook was a few years ago when one had boxes for different apps and so on. Regardless, coming after unpopular changes such as the alterations to the news feed and the introduction of the ticker, I have to suspect that many will reject the Timeline regardless.

As I said at the start of this post, Facebook users appear to be angrier with the social networking site more than usual and there seems to be greater numbers of Facebook users who are angry. Sadly, I have seen on The Huffington Post and more rarely on other sites individuals show dismiss such users' anger with the words "Well, it's free. If you don't like the changes, then don't use it." Now to some degree this is true. No one is forcing anyone to use Facebook. Quite frankly, however, I think these people are being a bit unrealistic. First, for many of us Facebook has become the primary means by which we connect to certain friends. I would be more than happy if every one of my friends on Faebook would move to Google+ or stay in touch by email or even Twitter. Sadly, I do not think that is going to happen. In the end, then, one must simply put up with the many changes Facebook makes if one wants to stay in touch with certain people on a regular basis. Second, Facebook is not really free. It is supported by advertising paid for by brands of products many of us purchase. In effect, then, Facebook's users are paying for Facebook any time they buy a brand that advertises there (which is pretty much every brand there is these days). I would then say that gives users a right to complain any time Facebook makes changes which displease them. Third, if one believes that one cannot complain about Facebook because "it is free," then he or she must also accept that one cannot complain about the commercial broadcast networks because they are also free. If I disconnected my cable tomorrow, I could still receive NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox free of charge with an aerial. Does that mean I cannot complain if NBC decided to cancel Parks and Recreation tomorrow? According to these people it would mean I could not. After all, I am getting it "free"--never mind the networks are financed by advertising from many brands that I buy.

Regardless, while I cannot say that I have been overly angry over many of the changes Facebook have made of late (to me they pale in comparison to changes they have made in the past), I cannot blame those who are outraged over such changes. After all, these changes do not simply diminish how much they enjoy the site, but in many cases how they interact with their friends on the site. And given the fact that Google+, Twitter, MySpace, and every other social networking site or microblogging site displays their news feeds or timelines in chronological order, I cannot blame them for being angry for Facebook's new feed not doing so. That having been said, at the same time I do believe that Facebook has gotten a few things right this time. I like the ability of being able to control which of my friends see posts. I have also been enjoying Facebook Music. And while I'll have to see it before I wholly pass judgement, I am wiling to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt where it concerns Timeline. Ultimately, I would say Facebook should give users the ability to view their news feeds in strict chronological order, the ability to delete Smart Lists,and the ability to do away with the Ticker, while letting users keep private everything they want to keep private. If they did that, then maybe Facebook users would not be quite so angry.

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