Talk to the Handbook, ‘cos the Facebook Ain’t Listening…

17 Jan

Originally posted 31 March 2009 @ Foviance.com

Earlier this month we saw the second Facebook home page redesign in less than a year. Nearly 800,000 users voted in a Facebook poll on the new design, 94% saying they did not like it, while around 1.7 million users joined the “Petition Against the New Facebook” group. Admitedly this is a tiny proportion of the alleged 175 million Facebook users (~1%) and it is generally only the most agrieved users who offer feedback by these methods, so presumably the other 99% are either ok with the design, indifferent to it, or simply didn’t provide comments as they were doing somthing else with their time.

Facebook says it listens to it’s users, as it did with the recent terms of use controversy. But whether it will act on their feedback is another matter. Facebook are making further changes in response to user complaints, but has clearly stated it has no intention of reverting back to the previous design, as this is just “one step in the continued evolution of the site”. The new design was according to Facebook, tested with users, so kudos to them for sticking to their guns, but this is a risky approach; ignore users at your peril but ask for their feedback after a change has been made and then ignore it and you’re going to seriously upset some people.

It’s interesting to note the comparisons between the latest redesign and microblogging wunderkind Twitter, particularly “shift[ing] the main emphasis towards real-time conversations and updates as the entry point to Facebook.” As you may or may not know, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently (and unsuccessfully) tried to buy Twitter for around $500 million.

Like it or loathe it, Twitter is arguably the poster child for what Mark Goldhaber in 1997 called “the attention economy”, wherein he predicted the currency of the New Economy would not be money but attention. Unlike the information ecomony where content was the key commodity and advertising the money maker, the attention of users is now the golden ticket and content creators are likely to have to pay if they want to be heard.

Facebook did not create the attention economy but they were there at the birth, holding the video camera and handing out cigars. They brought something new to the market and championed the new internet business model: free technology, user-generated content and lots of advertising. But innovation has a shelf life and what we are seeing is companies like Twitter, taking one aspect of what Facebook did well (live status updates) and riffing on it. But how do they anticipate making money out of it? Details of their business model are only just becoming clear but it would seem traditional web advertising won’t be a big part of it. So what are the other options? Pay for popularity? (a web entrepeneur and Twitter “power user” offered to pay $250,000 to have his name included in the Suggested User list for the next 2 years), subscriptions and business accounts with additional features? (Twitter have just confirmed this for 2009), or product placements? (a German start-up called Magpie and Friends pays users to insert ads into their message streams.)

By attempting to match it with Twitter, Facebook are in danger of chasing their own tail: moving away from what they do best and placing too much focus on one feature. Mobile phone companies suffered a similar fate as they eschewed R&D for duplication of competitors’ new features, only to see a rank outsider, Apple, storm the party and subvert the heck out of their paradigm.

Capturing attention is one thing…holding it is another, particularly when attention spans are getting shorter, so to be successful in the Twitter world presumably requires constant and frequent updates. There are already rumours of certain celebrities hiring others to update Twitter for them, which raises the dystopian nightmare of PR companies no longer tell us what to think, but writing our thoughts for us.

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