Thursday, May 27, 2010

Facebook's Problem: We Can't Pay That Much Attention

Facebook wants me to turn “things I can argue about” from an interest to a page on my profile. The purpose of the new pages is to create easier interaction and blah blah blah. So as you can tell, “things I can argue about” as a page is a pretty dumb idea—I doubt, as a matter of functionality, there are too many people living on that page. And, judging from my news feed, I’m not the only one: I see a complaint about someone trying to stop Facebook from changing his or her profile for him practically every day for a while now.

People have fixated endlessly and justly on Facebook’s privacy policies, but they’ve missed the point: Facebook is something like the confirmation of this popular critique of consumerism: that corporations deliver new spins on old products that fit no new needs but simply as a way of goosing sales or attention, which it does, until attention fades again whereupon the cycle is repeated. Every so often Facebook changes its design and its organizing principles, and when this happens there’s a brief outburst of public attention—most of the time around its privacy principles, which have continuously evolved in the direction of less private, but ignoring the fact that otherwise, Facebook has rearranged the deck chairs once again.

Facebook has introduced some genuine innovations or changes to their experiences, e.g. Apps, F8 and Facebook Connect, but often their redesigns seem to have been created simply to redesign something and to invigorate the long-term users who would otherwise fall into a state of catatonia about their Facebook relationship.

In this, Facebook resembles nothing more than the old, established media companies whose environment companies like Facebook are so busily disrupting. In the news about Washington Post selling Newsweek, we found out that the Washington Post owner hated the new, much-hyped redesign of the website and had instigated a new one (which is apparently being rolled out). Redesigns are nice if your problem is ugliness. But ugliness of the website is no real barrier to popular success—Breitbart’s media empire, for example, sacrifices good design for as much bold type and information as possible without inducing a seizure. So I’m inclined to think that redesigns are usually and mostly unnecessary, and people focusing on redesigns—like those politicians or businesspeople who focus on their PR—are generally distracting themselves and us from the actual issues the institution in question faces.

The issue that Facebook faces is, of course, is attention. I have quite a few friends who have given it up altogether. The issue that sociologists warned us about—that we had only so many friends and connections we cared about in a close way—is from my experience becoming steadily more true. The privacy issue, while important, may end up being the final confirmation of why many of my friends don’t use Facebook: not only is it boring or only deserving of cursory interest, but it wants to sell us out. That’s no formula for success.

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