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Facebook (Spring 2009)



There's been a lot of chatter in the tech press about Facebook's recent interface update, the backlash to it, and the partial retreat on some of the changes to the popular social-networking site. Among other complaints was the accusation that Facebook was trying to emulate Twitter. In fact, in some ways the new Facebook is less like Twitter. It displays some content non-chronologically, include comments, filtering, and multimedia. Tech news articles report that 1.7 million users have joined the group "Petition against the new Facebook" but fail to mention that that group was started in July 2008. The site actually polled its users, and Christopher Cox, the site's Director of Product, indicated on the site's official blog that the company would roll back some of the changes. Are the changes all wonderful? Hardly. But many bring much-needed improvements.

Here's what the post on Facebook's official blog says regarding three areas of particular urgency in re-redesigning Facebook.

* Live updating: One of the most common requests is the ability to see your stream update automatically. We will be adding the ability to turn on auto updating in the near future so you no longer need to refresh the page.
* Photo tags: In order to surface more photos you might like to see, we'll be adding photos tagged of your friends to the stream. This will happen in the coming weeks.
* More choices for applications: We've heard feedback that there is a lot of application content appearing in the stream. We will be giving you tools to control and reduce application content that your friends share into your stream.

The company has also promised to address (or already addressed) several other complaints. Those include making the right-column Highlights update more frequently, moving friend requests to the top of the same column (already done), and making Friend-list creation easier. The first doesn't make much sense to me, since the central panel is for the latest updates, while the side highlights are more for events, very popular videos, and the like that have a longer timeframe. The new left column already has an easier way to create friend lists, and it's more than welcome (though it oddly alphabetizes by first name).

I think a lot of the backlash grew from misunderstandings. Since long before this redesign, Facebook has employed an algorithm that decides what to show in the newsfeed. Even an Ars Technica reviewer mistakenly claims that before this latest redesign, users saw everything friends shared, which just isn't true. In fact, the latest redesign brings all friend activity into the feed: Before, my home page was about two pages deep. Now it's seven. Previously, users complained about the weeding out of content. Now, that there's no algorithm, I'd like to see some weeding out, and, clearly, others share my wish. Do I really need six separate consecutive entries from one person containing photo upload sets?

One misconception involves the news feed. A user I talked with complained that it's no longer chronological, which clearly isn't the case—each entry in the feed includes a relative time indication, such as "13 minutes ago" or "2 hours ago." Most likely, the upset user was thinking of the new Highlights column, which isn't in chronological order. I actually like this change, though, because it brings up more content that users previously wouldn't have seen in their main feed—for example, photos or videos that a lot of Friends have commented on, invitations, and other less-immediate content. One problem with this new space, though, is there's no way to delete an item you don't care about.

I'm also dubious about the allegation that Facebook is trying to emulate the much-hyped Twitter, which claims a paltry 7 million users compared with Facebook's 175 million. Personally, I welcome Facebook's filtering capability (not to be confused with the deceased feed-weed algorithm) that lets you reduce the high noise-to-signal ratio of Twitter. In any case, the two services fulfill different purposes: Twitter is meant to be one person publishing to the world, and Facebook exists to keep a mutually agreed-upon group of friends apprised of each others' doings.

That said, I can see how users would look at the prominence now given to the update box on the home page as an emulation of Twitter. Facebook also got rid of the "User name is" before the entry box, making the service look more like Twitter. But previously, users were often puzzled about the need to speak of themselves in the third person. I also like how the icons for adding Links, Photos, Videos, Music, and apps slide open only after you click in the update box, for a less cluttered look. And since most people go to their home page more often than their own profile page, it makes sense having the updater on the home page.

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