In defence of Facebook

There's been an awful lot of bad feeling against Facebook over the last year or so. Both from pundits and digital professionals. Facebook has seen breakaway success and is now one of the most popular sites on the web. I'll argue this success is down to the fact Facebook get people.

There’s been an awful lot of bad feeling against Facebook over the last year or so. Both from pundits and digital professionals.

High profile “I’m leaving Facebook and never coming back” statements from the likes of Jason Calacanis and Leo Laporte. It seems it’s very fashionable to be down on Facebook.

Why Facebook is a success

I spend a lot of time with users watching them struggle to complete tasks and achieve goals online. I’ve also seen those moments of delight where a site will goes a little further and gets it right.

Facebook has seen breakaway success and is now one of the most popular sites on the web. I’ll argue this success is down to the fact Facebook get people.

Facebook understand users on 2 different and important levels. They understand the interaction between user and computer and they understand the interaction between people and their friends.

Most internet companies understand one or other of these but rarely both. Google & Apple get interaction but don’t get people. Myspace & Microsoft get people but don’t get interaction.

Let’s take some specific examples.

Facebook photos

Facebook photos is the largest online photo sharing website. It’s overtaken both Flickr and Photobucket.

Uploading a photo to Facebook is easy. They’ve taken the time to get this right. Browsing photos is a dream. The use of cursor keys to move between photos that load in-page has made photo browsing easy. One the big issues with Flickr that they are only now begin to fix is to make it easy to move between photos.

The interaction stuff is pretty straightforward. What Facebook have done is understand what makes photos a draw online and where other photo sites have only just caught up to.

People like to see picture of other people. Specifically people want to see pictures of their friends and themselves.

Facebook got this pretty right much from day one and introduced tagging. Now you know when a friend has uploaded a photo of you. It’s very difficult to resist logging on to Facebook to see that photo.

The fact that Facebook understand people and has introduced functionally that taps into this understanding is the reason why many people have issues with Facebook. There’s a fine line between checking out what your friends have been up to and voyeurism.

Let’s look at a couple of recent Facebook changes that have stirred up some controversy.

Friend to friend interactions

Facebook recently launched a new feature that allows users to see the conversation between 2 mutual friends.
Example of Facebook friendship page
You can see wall posts and comments, photos, pretty much all the interactions the friends have had on Facebook. Facebook are not sharing anything new here, they are making all the interactions available in one place.

The major criticism is of course privacy. One can easily see the conversations between boyfriend and girlfriend and see how relationships have developed through Facebook.

Facebook understand people, they know people like to keep up with the gossip between to mutual friends. The keyword here is gossip and with that is the fine line between keeping up and voyeurism.

I’m not saying Facebook are justified in introducing this feature more that they understand what makes a feature popular and useful. I have no doubt this feature is proving to be really popular.

It’s the message not the medium

Facebook have just announced improvements to their messaging service. Third party emails and SMS will now integrate into a user’s Facebook messages.

There has been criticism of this (of course) online with a lot of the geek pundits getting rather snobby about Facebook emails being the new Hotmail.

What Facebook have cleverly done is again focus on both the interaction between user and computer and the interaction between people.

Google’s email offering Gmail has long been praised as one of the best email platforms around. As a UX professional I agree, interacting with Gmail is great. It’s very easy to use.

But what Google did was to take an existing system and made it better. It reminds me of the famous quote from Henry Ford.

What Gmail lacks is a real understanding of people. Google is an engineering company, Facebook is a people company.

With Gmail I get spam, newsletters and mostly crap. I might get 1 email a day from a friend. Because of all this crap I use Facebook, Twitter or SMS to message friends. Email is mostly junk.

Facebook’s main reason for introducing the new messaging service is based in the idea messaging should be platform agnostic. That is, if I want to message my friend Jon I should be able do it in a way that suits me and suits Jon. I write the message in Facebook and Jon decides if he gets the message via email, Facebook or SMS. I don’t have to remember which method suits Jon best. I can be sure he’ll get the message.

Importance is not about the what it’s about the who

Facebook have also gone a step further that Gmail in prioritising email. Gmail have introduced the concept of ‘Important’ messages to help my sieve through the mess that is email in the modern world. The idea being a message from Jon won’t get lost amongst the viagra and bank statements. And it sort of works. It does however still think my bank statements are important – sorry Gmail they really aren’t.

What makes Facebook different is it knows who my friends are. They know Jon is a friend. If I receive an email from Jon it knows that’s important.

What’s more Facebook will aggregate all messages between myself and Jon in one place. And not by SMS, email or Facebook message. It’s the message not the medium that’s important.

Facebook understand what people want from messaging and approach the problem from that angle. This can result in features that walk the fine privacy line but ultimately succeed because they address a a basic human need & desire.

Facebook moves forwards whilst the others just make faster horses.

5 Responses to “In defence of Facebook”

  1. Jon Gibbins

    Good observations, Joe.

    Facebook indeed gets a lot of bashing, especially within the web development community it seems – including from myself at times. They have done things that I don’t fully agree with – my privacy settings should not take me more than a few minutes to understand and set – but on the whole they do get the experience right. I’m certain that a lot of thought goes into that site.

  2. Dan

    Really nice assessment Joe! Although I have massive problems with social networking as a practice (see, Facebook have done a lot right and in many ways have educated users in concepts such as (near) real-time streams of data, from the news feed.

    Appealing to a massively broad audience is never likely to be easy and literally every change they make gets a degree of uproar (like the recent reduction of font size) but it’s proven useful enough to a vast number of people, it’s become a utility and that’s something bigger than a site attracting users, it clearly provides value.

    My post rants about the problems I see more broadly than Facebook though being the biggest player, they get most of the flack but no-one else is close to matching what they’ve done. Certainly Diaspora is a technical attempt to combat some of the issues Facebook has but I doubt the public will ever see this or care. As Pete from Mashable’s column on CNN yesterday rightly says, the next Facebook-beater won’t look like Facebook at all.

  3. joe

    @Jon we’ve all had Facebook issues – me included but the thing is Facebook is a little bit like a social drug

    @Dan Great article Dan. Facebook can and does throw it’s weight around. The problem is it’s only the geeks right now that care about data interpretability, profile porting and let’s face it privacy. The stuff the geeks build to overcome these issue never quite gets the social aspect

  4. Iwein

    Great article Joe, I hadn’t appreciated before why you would use Facebook for messaging rather than email. I always saw it as arriving in my inbox as an email anyway. What you say makes a lot of sense.

    I would love to hear more on Google and particularly Apple getting interactions but not people.

    Nice to see you this morning 🙂

  5. joe

    @Iwein Thanks for the kind words. I’ll look at writing something about Apple and Google in the new year.

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