Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yet Another Tirade Against Facebook

I hope all of you will forgive me, but I am writing another tirade against Facebook. Last month Facebook made changes to its news feed which resulted in possibly more outrage on the part of users against the site than ever. Users' anger at Facebook was so great that it was even covered extensively in the media. Indeed, I have had a few friends who have stopped using Facebook entirely, either deactivating their accounts or simply abandoning them. Sadly, Facebook has done nothing to correct what has obviously been a mistake on their part. In fact, if anything, they have made things worse.

The source of most users' ire was a change to the news feed to where the top of one's news feed is dominated by "Top Stories," stories determined by Facebook's algorithm to be "interesting" to the user. Obviously there are two problems with Facebook's idea of "Top Stories." First, I doubt that any algorithm is going to be determine what is a top story with much success. Indeed, my brother has complained that his "Top Stories" have generally been what he calls "picture messages"--jpegs with no actually picture, but simply some slogan or saying. He would much rather see status updates as his "Top Stories." He has been unmarking the "picture messages" as "Top Stories" and is slowly seeing status updates shown in his "Top Stories," but it has been a very slow process. Another problem is that almost none of his favourite pages are showing up in his "Top Stories," forcing him to create a list of nothing but his favourite pages (more on that in a bit).

Second, regardless of how good Facebook's algorithm is in determining what is interesting to users, most users I know (including myself) want their news feed in strict, reverse chronological order. I detest the idea of "Top Stories," no matter how interesting, being at the top of my page. I want my news feed displayed with the newest posts at the very top. It is the fact that the news feed is no longer in strict, reverse chronological order that many users are angry with Facebook. And why some have even deserted it.

Earlier I mentioned that my brother's favourite pages were not showing up in his "Top Stories." This could be a serious problem for Facebook. For those who do not know what a Facebook page is, it is basically a profile for a business, organisation, band, or celebrity. In other words, it is more or less a means of connecting with one's customers or fans on Facebook. If pages are not showing up in "Top Stories," then, that is a bit of a problem. I cannot imagine most corporations, many of who advertise on Facebook, being too happy about that. And if they are unhappy enough, they could well withdraw any advertising from the site. Quite frankly, I would not blame them.

While users are still angry over the whole concept of "Top Stories," the past few weeks I noticed another change Facebook has made that prevents the news feed from being displayed in strict chronological order, Quite simply, Facebook started grouping posts in any given topic together. I openly despise this as I want my news feed in strict, reverse chronological order. Indeed, it seems to me that in grouping posts belonging to one topic together than any given post could well get lost in the shuffle. I have actually found myself visiting friends' profiles and noticing posts I did not see earlier because they had been grouped together with other "similar posts." I might also point out that Facebook's algorithm for determining when posts are similar is flawed. Quite simply, a week ago I noticed that posts on either "New York Comic-Con" and "Mid-Ohio Comic-Con" were grouped together as referring to "San Diego Comic-Con!" Granted, they are all comic book conventions, but that does not mean they are all the same. Indeed, they all take place in three different cities!

Now I know that are those who will maintain that one should not complain about a site that is allegedly free. For such critics, I will simply quote my last tirade against Facebook: "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."

 Now I am not going to deny that Facebook has not done some things right of late. They have given users a greater ability to direct their posts to specific individuals or groups of people so that every single one of their friends do not see it (particularly useful if one does not want to annoy everyone with endless Farmville posts). And I personally like the idea of Facebook Music. I actually enjoy seeing what my friends listen to and being able to share what I listen to with them. But these are only two small improvements that are minimal when compared to how Facebook has screwed up the news feed.

Several years ago MySpace made the error of making changes that were largely unpopular with its users. The site soon found itself losing users to the then simpler and easier to use Facebook. It would seem that Facebook is currently going down this same path, making  changes to the site that users do not like and that actually reduces the functionality of the site. I do not think it takes a fortune teller to see that it might not be long before Facebook finds itself in the same position as MySpace. I doubt that it will happen over night, but then it did not happen over night with MySpace either. In a few years Facebook might find itself just as much of a graveyard as MySpace is now, its users having abandoned it for Google+ or some other simpler and easier to use social networking site that has yet to even be introduced. It would seem to be that unless Facebook reverses the changes it has made to the news feed and goes back to a simple news feed in reverse chronological order, this could well be the beginning of the end for the site.

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