The recent string of ‘events’ held in a room at Facebook headquarters seemed like the college theatre department equivalent of the Broadway show of an Apple event. First announcing new privacy ‘features’, and then the new Facebook ‘email’ system, Mark Zuckerberg has tried to cast himself in the lead role of reality-distorting salesman and ringmaster that Steve Jobs brought into technology. He fails at this not because of his performance or the production around it, but because he just doesn't have the goods.
Apple is able to present their new products as world-changing innovations because a few times in history they truly have been. Facebook on the other hand hasn't innovated anything, just driven through by brute force the implementation of a collection of obvious ideas, ending up at the right place at the right time.
In this, Facebook is an impressive operation, and a credit to the capacities of its founder, a young nerd gifted in the combined mechanics of consumer applications development and cold-blooded capitalism, but in neither separately, and uninspired in the work of making great products. It's in that sense that Facebook has stepped into the space that Microsoft occupied for so many years. They are a dominant product that we have little choice in using if we want to take advantage of a new capacity, in this case the ambient social interactions offered by the concept of social networking. As both a cause and symptom of that dominance, their product is inferior.
Facebook is a design failure in ways very similar to how Windows was. It obscures important functions by attempting to give users access to a large number of unimportant functions. You could say its problem is that it concerns itself with functions. Functions, ‘features’ you could also say, of the site are the units by which it's grown. This is opposed to any holistic consideration of the needs of its users for a particular task. The new design of the profile page is some of the first work they've done showing any broad reconsideration of an aspect of the user's experience.
The redesign of their privacy configuration interface was a step in that direction too, but merely a tardy afterthought, a configuration ‘Wizard’ tacked on to soothe a serious user revolt. Not to say that something wasn't better than nothing, especially for their sake, but they have more work to do. There's a good argument to be made that Facebook's privacy problem is not only about a fundamental disinterest that they have in our privacy. To the contrary, they have always had robust privacy control mechanisms that allow a user to restrict their information in a very granular way, providing themselves a great deal of privacy should they know how to configure it.
But users don't configure things. At the margins they can and will, but a good product makes the majority of its decisions for itself. In this way Facebook undermines the privacy of its users through poor design. It's tempting to think of that as intentional, a sort of passive-aggressive approach to acquiring sellable user data. But it never pays to impugn one's motives. Probably the company and what it produces are simply subject to the fundamental misanthropy and artlessness necessarily common to pure engineers, people who spend all day communicating with computers in languages that express only absolutes. Technology companies and technology people that focus only on technology always have this problem. Design is a bridge from those worlds to the humans who are their sustenance.
If Facebook is Microsoft, then who is its Apple? Who is the innovator and principled product operation soldiering on at its feet, poised to overtake it at the next big shift? There may not be one clear player, but instead a community of players. (A network of them, fittingly.) Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, their ilk and their successors are building distributed technologies and maintaining the agility necessary to survive the inevitable upheaval against “social networking” as a product. (The Diaspora project also exists as a direct expression of this movement, a serious sign of the approaching dangers to the Facebook monolith.)
Social networking is not actually a product. It's not a technology. It's not even a feature. It's a language, a social milieu, a communication channel that is new in that it hews to social conventions. The telephone was a technology, and it forced us to create new conventions to suit it. So was email, and text messages were a product of the two. Social networks are a set of behaviors in software that can model the social conventions we need to have good relationships.
It's no wonder that the social conventions defined by one large, financially-motivated company steered by a 26-year-old computer nerd sometimes strain our relationships. Social conventions have always grown organically, and so will their expressions in software. They will arise from a series of systems growing and dying as each one better, or more in its own specific way, encapsulates how we want to know each other online, through photos, through 140 byte quips and quotations, through locations that we visit, etc.
Another thing that was not actually a product was personal computing. It was a new set of processes for doing things in our lives, some made possible by technology, some just modified by it. Microsoft thought of the IBM clone as their unending road into the future, marked by megahertz and adorned with increasingly fancy graphics flying by along the side. But that road has stopped, or at least narrowed to make room for the road of mobile devices. And as they try to merge onto it, Microsoft finds they are crowded out by Apple, the competitor who always kept their eye on what the user truly needed or wanted from new technology, and stepped in with a new design for what that could be while the giant slept at the wheel.
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Having just read Apartm.net's article, 'Facebook is Microsoft', I must offer this most apropos observation.
You sound bitter.Charles Eisenberg on December 16th, 2010