Friday, April 17, 2009

Bring Back the Old Facebook- wait, no, not the Old Old Facebook, but the Old New Facebook*

* title courtesy of Jeremy Tan

So now that the initial "I HATE ALL NEW THINGS" furor over the latest "new Facebook" has subsided somewhat, here's my beef with the most recent overhaul, in a nutshell. Facebook has upgraded to a social networking site that has killed the power of social networking. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's certainly true that they have stifled the very forces that make social networking spread like wildfire.

First of all, let's look at what the perceived problem was and what Facebook sought to resolve with the new iteration. As far as I can tell, the main issue was balancing overburdening people with every single item from their friends' minifeeds (the old real-time feed) vs the haphazard culling of pseudo-random items into a summary feed. Their solution was to decide that some kinds of content were more important than others and to present this subset of all generated friend content in their totality.

There's a number of big problems with this.
  1. One is that Facebook has decided what feed information is important to you (which may not be accurate). This is the "killing the power of social networking" part of things. A lot of seemingly innocuous or unimportant information that was previously the source of great amusement (such as one's changing of one's profile picture, or one being tagged in some content, or one joining a group) would flow down to one's friends and spread in that fashion- now that information is lost, except for friend-specific stalkers.
  2. A second problem is that for those who were used to the completeness of the old real-time feed, this is a step backwards. Admittedly, though, the overkill of the real-time feed is for the obsessive and not for everyone.
  3. Thirdly, because the only stream available is a "real-time", because no summary/randomized feed is available, and because not everyone is a 24hr/old posts-checking Facebook junkie, a real-time-only feed means casual users miss out on a lot of things, potentially. The "Highlights" are an attempt to address this sort of thing, but, again, only certain kinds of content qualify, which bring up the same sorts of problems as in (1) above. Also, folks in different timezones from one another are likely to miss each others' updates, given the time differential, unless one, again, goes through the trouble of scouring old posts.
  4. Fourthly, and this is a general problem that existed before "new" Facebook, blanket user feed filtering doesn't really work. Generally, some types of updates from some users are problematic- but not *all* their updates. Case in point, twitter-esque status updates from one friend might be annoying but you don't want to completely ignore their updates and miss out on their photo uploads, for example.
In my opinion, there are ways to address these issues and still address the issues that Facebook wants to improve on.

Here's my suggestion, in a nutshell, of how to fix Facebook.
  • First, we need the concept of "Publisher" settings (i.e.: for a user updating his/her status or posting a link, or otherwise creating anything that would create an entry in their feed) vs "Reader/Filter/Feed" settings (i.e.: for a user reading his friend's updates).
  • All of the things that qualify, i.e.: anything that can appear in a feed entry, should be atomic and treated equally, and should default everything on for writing (publishing) but, in the interests of backwards-compatibility with current Facebook, only the same items that currently show up in the feed should be enabled. Turning on everything from the reader-side would be equivalent to the old real-time feed and appeal to the hardcore/obsessive.
  • Instead of blanket per-user filtering, what we really want is per-user per-atomic newsfeed item filtering, same for publishing. In other words, anything that can be published can be filtered, on both a global or per-user setting basis.
  • Bring back some variant of the old feed, but call it something like the MishMash Feed or the Summary Feed. This is great for casual users. This could also be achieved by simply provided a Feed-like interface to Highlights, but with more "old" entries.
I'm pretty sure that this would do it. You'd satisfy the crazy Facebook junkies like me, giving us complete access to the information we used to have in the old Real-Time feed, but you'd still have the less overwhelming options for the general/casual user.

On a separate note, it's probably only a matter of time before this happens, but if one can re-arrange the positions of items in one's profile, why can't one have similar control over (at least some) of the options in one's home/feed page? I can understand not being able to move the position of the ads around, but I for one would much prefer having my Upcoming Events near the top, and my "Friends You May Know"/"Suggestions" near the bottom.

Yes, I may be a jazz musician, but I used to be a software developer in another life. Can you tell?

[2009/04/20] Addendum: The other problem with having a Real-Time feed and no Summary Feed is that an extremely active user (or anything that can publish to a feed, such as a Public Profile or an Application) can easily monopolize one's feed. Both selective filtering on the Reader side and Summary Feed as an option would address this problem.