Facebook's Lousy Facelift

Incredibly, Facebook -- until last week, the Apple of social-networking services -- decided to react to the Twitter "threat" by trying to turn itself into its relatively puny challenger.
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How "Twitteriffic" is the new Facebook redesign? Imagine that Apple panicked over the press the Google G1 phone was getting last fall and abruptly decided to remake the iPhone in the image of its upstart competitor--dropping the most desirable features and adopting the G1's bigger bulk, smaller screen, skimpy memory, lack of apps, and mediocre interface. We all know that could never happen: Apple has too much confidence in its own market dominance and design brilliance to blink like that. Yet, incredibly, Facebook--until last week, the Apple of social-networking services--decided to react to the Twitter "threat" by trying to turn itself into its relatively puny challenger. It's like Meryl Streep getting plastic surgery in order to more closely resemble Malin Akerman. Who'd have guessed that Facebook, of all the beloved services, could be capable of such a needlessly lousy facelift?

I think web historians can mark down March 13, 2009 as "the day they broke Facebook." Not that it's easy to pin it down to one date, because some users started getting shifted over a day or two earlier to "New Facebook." (Allusion to "New Coke" intentional.) But there's something unluckily apt about Friday the 13th being the completion date for everyone's home page involuntarily giving way to... The Change. (Menopausal allusion also intentional.) From every indication I can gauge, the reaction among Facebook partisans has been overwhelmingly blistering, making me wonder if they did any kind of market research at all that didn't involve sampling groups made up entirely of Twitter triumphalists. Earth to 24-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: As of last month, Twitter was getting 54 million monthly visits, which sounds impressive, except that this genius thing you invented was getting almost almost 1.2 billion visits--or, in other words, was still about 20 times as popular as the nascent challenger. Remind us again, Mark, what it was you didn't like about that math?

Scrolling through all my friends' status updates in one 24-hour period between midnight Friday and midnight Saturday, I counted 40 unsolicited complaints from my pals about the changes. Some were generalized grumbling: "Bill Holdship wonders why the geniuses at Facebook felt the need to fix something that wasn't broken"... "Carla DeSantis wants the old Fecebook back! This one stinks"... "Mike Denneen thinks that when you have an update that 150 million users weren't waiting for, you ought to get it right the first time"... "Alison Bracker is thinking that if she wanted to be on Twitter, she'd be on Twitter"... "Mark Harris is glad to see that the plunging economy has not affected the gratuitous-redesign industry." And so on.

So my friends are naturally resistant to any change and, as former senator Phil Gramm would surely say, we're really just a nation of whiners... right? Not really--the complaints get pretty precise. Using my status update to poll pals about any specific objections they had to the remade Facebook, I was quickly besieged by dozens of very detailed responses. Some had to do with cosmetic changes like fonts and layout, to be sure. But what came through most clearly was that Facebook had broken a cardinal rule of business: When in doubt, offer the consumer more choices, not fewer. The new Facebook eliminates a good number of the channels users could formerly choose to receive information about their friends, in favor of diminished options and a bland, filterless uniformity. "My selectivity is gone," said one friend, Lesley Bracker, "now controlled by Facebook."

Why did Facebook take away so many of the options that users loved? That's easy--they want you to focus on your home page's main "stream," because, um... it'll remind you of Twitter's singular stream of info? It's difficult to catalogue all the ironies here. In some ways, Facebook and Twitter have long provided the same service, with FB's "status updates" being equivalent to the younger service's 140-character "tweets." The difference was, that's one of seemingly about a hundred things Facebook offered, whereas that's pretty much the only thing Twitter does. Rather than relish in the diversity of choices it gave users, though, Facebook is forcing everything into the same channel, and then trying to make these items look as indistinguishable from one another as possible. Links look like status updates look like wall posts look like wall-post responses--and with every tiny or large item now accompanied by a superfluous user photo, they all look like tweets.

What else is bugging my Facebook friends (who tend to be involved in the publishing, movie, and music industries, with some token teenagers mixed in)? Let them count the ways...

* Now gone is one of Facebook's most compelling features: the "live feed," which let users watch everything their friends did on the site, as they did it, instantaneously. To quote one friend of a friend: "'Live Feed' was my TV alternative. It was fascinating to watch. And even though they're touting this new FB 'Home' page as a real-time update, it does NOT automatically update itself." Even now, Facebook's help page continues to make this illusory promise: "The stream shows you all posts from your friends in real-time." Another friend used her status update to rebut that one: "Gayle Fine thinks someone needs to explain to Facebook that 'real-time' is only real time when you don't have to hit any buttons to refresh."

* Also missing is the ability to look at your friends' status updates as a distinct list, without having links or wall posts or other data mixed in. The scroll of status updates was always my first Facebook go-to. Yes, they're very similar to Twitter's tweets, but there was something about Facebook's elegant typography and layout that encouraged users to intermittently indulge in philosophical haiku or droll bon mots--as opposed to the constant barrage of overinformational "About to scratch myself" posts that Twitter seems to encourage.

* As far as I can tell, everyone hates having user photos show up alongside each link or wall post as well as status update--with the corners shaved off, like the tacky matte prints you or your parents used to pick up from the Fotomat in the 1970s. One of my friends made a different comparison: "James Sposto wonders, why are my corners rounded? That's so 2003--we all look like State Farm logos. (Believe me, I know.)" Another friend used his update to try to lobby for a mass demonstration: "Mark Philip Venema says: Join me in posting a blank thumbnail as an official protest so we can thumb our noses at FB's over-thumbnailing."

* As for the uniformity of type styles: "Ty Visconti thinks the big print is like playing bridge with the blue hairs. BINGO!!!!!" But in the interest, I did have a bare handful of friends who expressed neutrality about the changes, including this brave soul: "Ari Karpel isn't fazed by the new F'book look. So, the font is bigger. He's old anyway." So there's at least one demographic that's satisfied with the changes, then: Everyone who'd been hankering all along for "Facebook: Large Type Edition."

• "The feed no longer tells you when friends add new friends," writes journalist-pal Roy Rivenburg, "which was one of the main ways I discovered new friends. And it doesn't tell you when people join groups, etc. The 'Highlights' thing is useless -- not reader-friendly and rarely seems to change, so easily ignored." The "Highlights" referred to here--which is not for children, but ought to be--is the narrower column to the right of the main stream, which contains a mixture of... well, honestly, I'm still not sure what. It's where advertisements appear, along with a completely random mixture of other alerts that you used to be able to look up as a separate category. (Right now, my "Highlights" column is ironically informing me that five of my friends joined the group "The New Facebook Layout Sucks!," right below an invitation to "Become a Fan of Papa John's Pizza.")

* "Previously," my friend Jan Breslauer wrote me, "you had to go to a person's page to see something else someone posted on their wall, building in a level of semi-privacy. Now it's all part of the same grabbag feed. I am now disinclined to post any status updates or write on anyone's wall."

* "Someone posted 30 photos last night...and every single photo registered separately on my home page," griped one friend. Groused another: "A friend of mine sent a reminder to 11 people to 'Support Quincy Jones' Call for A Secretary of the Arts.' And all 11 reminders showed up in my feed. I don't want to block this friend from my feed, but I also don't want to see all 11 posts. It's ridiculous." Jen Grisé Ferentzy chimed in: "There will be a negative impact on charities, too. I used to go to the 'Lil Green Patch' once a week and spend 15 minutes giving plants/tending gardens (which donates to rainforest). I won't now because the newsfeed in that quantity would make everyone delete me!"

* Writes my friend Bracker, "Here's something new: it wouldn't let me send a private message containing a link without typing a code first--and not once, but twice!! Like I was buying from Ticketmaster, or something."

* As for games, fuggehdaboutit. It looks like Facebook has, unless they're just doing a really good job of hiding 'em. Evan Serpick devoted his status update to asking, "How do i see/get to my applications --I need Scramble!" Similarly: "Anne Hurley just wants to know where Word Twist is! I love you guys, but don't hide my games."

Wait, did you hear that: "I love you guys, but..."? Implicit in all this reproof is the idea that users feel let down by something with which they'd fallen hopelessly and intractably in lust. More than one of my friends even used the "B"-word: "I'm not using it as much because I hate the way it looks. I feel betrayed." It'd become so much a part of our lives that some of my friends feel like they've been disappointed by... dare we say it?... a friend. "Zuckerberg (AND his roommate) created Facebook," writes my friend Mark Hanser. "But he's immature and over his head. When something grows so large and becomes such a shared experience, it becomes a covenant. And once a covenant of millions concurs, the guy the created it can't go changing the previously agreed-upon conventions that everyone seemingly knows, uses and loves."

Well, yes he can, actually. Facebook is privately owned, not a governmentally controlled trust. It's free, too, so it's not as if we can threaten to take our subscription dollars elsewhere. As Ruben Pla wrote on a friend's page, "Never look a gift horse in the Facebook." I got to wondering a while ago what would happen if something so many of us have come to think of as almost like another appendage were to suddenly get arbitrarily amputated. Would we all collectively move over to another site--as some threatened to do during the recent "terms of service" controversy--or would this unlikely national community of tens of millions simply disperse and go back to bowling alone, as it were? It hasn't come to that; I don't know anyone who's actually dropped out. Most of us will stick with Facebook, to some degree, even if the service becomes two-faced, shitfaced, or simply faceless.

But as my friend Nick Redman writes: "It must be galling for the folks at FB to have news anchors and other assorted TV people constantly tweeting on air and pushing it, since these changes are a rather desperate attempt to Twitterize FB. It's a shame because the humor and uniqueness have been diluted, and once something ceases to be fun, it merely becomes tedious."

So, Sir Zuckerberg, please, even though we can't quit you, face up to the mass discontent and don't let Facebook die a slow death from gradual neglect. My friends just gave you about $10 million of market research. Consider the preceding blog as something akin to another popular feature you apparently just dropped: a friendly superpoke.

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