Facebook’s new design, as many of us have been noting since the company began testing it months ago, seems to emphasis features also seen in trendy new web services favored by us self-styled “early adopter” types.
Mark Slee of Facebook, in talking about the redesign, says:
The profile is very personal; it’s important to us that everyone have control over their own profile. Along those lines, once you’ve published stories or posted content, you can adjust the size to promote the things you care about most, and demote the stories you don’t find as interesting.
And in discussing the redesign with my friend BC yesterday, he noted that the redesign eliminated clutter, and that the news update had eaten the rest of Facebook: no more static pages. Taken together, it’s a clear change in stance for Facebook. Just as they’d re-adjusted to saturation within college campuses by opening it to everyone, they’re now positioning themselves in response to the rise of micro-blogging services like Twitter by centralizing the News Feed in its presentation – trying to corral those users they see spending more time and energy elsewhere.
I think this may be a key misstep by Facebook – because as “hot” as Twitter and similar services are, their actual user bases are still very, very small (a few percent of Facebook’s, even with explosive growth), if amplified by disproportionate representation in early-adopter communities like bloggers. But it’s not a shock that Facebook would be looking for a solution to some problem, at this point in its history: as my colleague Fred Stutzman noted last November, Facebook’s blessing is also its curse:
Ego-centric social network sites all suffer from the “what’s next” problem. You log in, you find your friends, you connect, and then…what? Social networks solve this problem by being situationally relevant. On a college campus, where student real-world social networks are in unprecedented flux, Facebook is a social utility; the sheer amount of social information a student needs to manage as they mature their social networks makes Facebook invaluable.
… What happens when a social network is no longer situationally relevant? Use drops off.
…Try as they might, once ego-centric social networks lose situational relevance, its pretty much impossible for them to retain their status.
…The coolest tools, the best exclusive media – these are only “fingers in the dam” to keep users in non-situationally relevant spaces.
This clarifies the problem. Facebook’s situational relevance for many users after the initial high-use, friend-finding phase – as an ego-centric social network, based on one’s connections to other individuals – either at college or in the post-college working world is not primarily about finding out what your friends are doing. Rather, it’s a low-involvement way of tracking where they are and where they go, and how to keep in touch with them. Ongoing research that Fred and I are conducting shows that even among current college students, the intensity of Facebook use and identification follows the familiar pattern of decline over time, even if it’s not abandoned entirely.
And Facebook is caught in a bind, because, having both accepted venture capital infusions and sold off a sliver to Microsoft, they now have a very particular interest to keep chasing: increased profit growth. For them, this means, exclusively, increased advertising revenues. synedochic has a long, detailed analysis of why this is a bad/hopeless place to be for social media enterprises (which are slightly different than social networking sites, but similar lessons apply here), but long story short: you can’t squeeze blood out of a rock, and chasing increased ad revenue with a user base whose use is already declining is a very self-defeating proposition.
The vast majority of Facebook users are still Digital Natives who’ve never had (high school or) college without also having Facebook. For them, it’s not simply a case of Facebook becoming passé – it’s a matter of their changing social needs, of shifting situational relevance. As they move into different social contexts – college, work, new cities – there may be bursts of activity where they add and approve new friendships, but it won’t be a “place” to spend time in the same way. Having a new Facebook where they can “adjust the size [of items] to promote the things you care about most, and demote the stories you don’t find as interesting” is beside the point if your relevant social reality is mostly taking place elsewhere – indeed, it’s just more things to ignore.
For all the worries about Digital Natives’ social lives moving to endless hours in front of the computer screen, preliminary research is showing very different effects: “a strong association between use of Facebook and… social capital.” Facebook, and social media generally, are a way to connect with friends, but not the place to connect with friends: that still happens mostly IRL, and ultimately it may be the case that after a “Facebook phase” of socially connecting, offline socialization may increase in aggregate over time (though that’s pure speculation on my part, for now). But the bottom line is that already-experienced Facebook users aren’t going to take on the characteristics of techie “early adopters,” and they aren’t going to go back to “hanging out” on Facebook. Redesigning layout to foreground the News Feed won’t change that.
Why are these issues worth such thorough examination? I believe that as especially Digital Natives come of age in a world of networked publics, where increasingly even offline actions are archived or accessible online, it’s important to follow the shape that the infrastructures of these publics take. While ultimately I do not believe that this redesign of Facebook will achieve the desired goal of restoring high usage levels among long-time users, it will, without a doubt, create a very different experience for newer users of Facebook (which has and will retain a central role in the social lives of millions of young people). For them, Facebook will become mostly about watching other people, and seeing what they do. Will they like it? Will it turn them into voyeurs, or make them more susceptible to suggestion and peer pressure? Will they identify more naturally in groups rather than as individuals? As always – more questions on which only time will tell.