Why Facebook (kinda) won

Mike Caulfield has a good post about how Facebook and siloed social media got traction in ways the blogosphere circa 2005-2008 never maintained. He has a good point about the user experience – people aren’t going to go look at 10, 100, 1000 different websites with different graphic designers, publishing models, and navigation structures. That’s where the simplified UX of Facebook comes in. A single stream, pulling stuff from everyone a person cares about. And that jerk from junior high.

But, if it was just about having a streamlined user experience and consistent email-like interface, RSS readers solved that a decade ago. Google Reader was that. Fever˚ still is that for me. I don’t think that’s why Facebook is where every non-geek hangs out. I think there are a few reasons why people are there:

  1. Because non-geeks don’t want to publish openly. They want to share things with their friends, and only their friends. I also see this with instructors and students – many just want to share with people in their class/section/group. That’s why the LMS is still so core on campus – it’s basically a clunky version of the Facebook UX pattern – share stuff with the people in a small context, and only those people. Ask non-HTML-syntax-nerds about how they share things. Many will say “share? Why would I do that? That’s so high school! Why would I want people to know that?” Or “OK. Maybe my friends would be interested in photos of my vacation. But I sure as hell ain’t posting them on the web!” Or some variant. Facebook soothes people into thinking they’re sharing only with people they’ve let into their groups. That’s something that the blogosphere never did, and it’s something that held back a lot of people from participating in the open blogoweb back in the olden days.

  2. Because normal people don’t want to think about stuff like domains, or backups, or updates and patches, or plugins and modules. They just want to see what their friends and family are up to, and maybe post some clever photos. And, although webstuff is way easier to manage than it was back in the dark ages, it’s still not as easy as it needs to be for dad to use it.

  3. Because that’s where everybody is. Facebook feels like a place. It’s tangible. That’s also something that the distributed blogothingy never achieved. It’s something different for every participant or observer. Facebook is Facebook. Everybody is there. Because there’s a “there” there.

So, we can either fight against Facebook and insist that everyone leave it and do things The Right Way™ – or come to terms that for the vast majority, Facebook (or the siloed design pattern represented by Facebook) is what they are comfortable with. And that’s OK. That doesn’t stop anyone from doing things more openly. The web is what we make of it. If we think there are better ways, and that openness is important, we need to continue modelling and exploring. But we can’t expect people to follow. Or to even be interested. Or to not think we’re freaks for doing things out in the wilderness.

And maybe, part of our explorations will involve finding ways to make the wilderness more approachable. Maybe we’re building trails and national parks so city folk can experience things they wouldn’t otherwise experience. I’ve got some ideas about that, and am hoping to get the chance to help build some stuff…

2 thoughts on “Why Facebook (kinda) won”

  1. I think all this is true, although the way I look at it is that Google Reader and RSS readers in general kind of stalled at some point. We never developed very good recommendation mechanisms, for example — Google and other RSS readers (for the most part) never said hey, here’s some things you might like, or in any case never did that very successfully. The community features of the readers remained underdeveloped and geeky. (This was odd because stuff like “popular in your network” was completely doable in Reader, but I guess they had to not give that to use b/c Google+)

    Ahhhh…. Google Plus. There’s part of the story too. There was a point where Google could have tried to make Reader marginally more accessible to the general public or kill it and try to be Facebook. They went with door #2.

    I actually feel like RSS readers got really close and then just never matured.

    The siloed thing is something I haven’t dealt with, but it’s absolutely true. Dealing with protected RSS feeds never really worked, and nobody really cared to make it work because (I think) we were a bit too religious Or at least I was in any case. I’m trying to get less religious in that regard, and think about “pathways to openness” as the model. Twitter is a great example of a platform that is struggling because it is not siloed enough, and every word spoken is fraught. I think we’d do well to think more about options in-between the siloed/open binary.

    One example I was thinking about today was what if we could post things anonymously under a hashed system where our friends would see who we were but strangers could not.

    It’s not really that hard. I post something and then md5 hash my email into it as author. When you read it your browser software or page-based javascript checks the md5 hash against a list of emails you know, and if it finds a match it says hey, it’s D’Arcy. But if it doesn’t find a match it defaults to your chosen pseudonym, and without a suspected email to check it against the hash is not readable. You could imagine a set of classes working like this on the web, the world can see their work, and they can see who is who, and their parents can see what they did, and if they ever want to prove to an employer they wrote things they could give them the hashed email. But no one searching for them on the web could find this stuff, 20 years later if it’s embarrassing, throw away the key and no one will know who wrote it.

    Anyway, I think these sorts of things interest me now much more than ideological purity.

    1. Part of it is how to make communities and connections visible in a distributed system? Facebook and its ilk make it easy to see a list of your “friends” – distributed systems make it difficult to see your communities, what’s going on in them, and loci of activity/attention. Hey, waitaminute. That sounds like something someone cough might try to tackle in a PhD program ahem (stay tuned – applying to a program in the next few weeks)

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