Imagining a Better Facebook
Today is February 4, 2014, exactly one decade after a nineteen-year-old Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook from his dorm room. Today, the company is worth over $150 billion and has over 1.2 billion active users. I joined Facebook in late 2007. Back then, Facebook was fun. I’d waste hours on the site writing statuses, scrolling through my newsfeed, and messaging friends. But these days, I don’t enjoy using Facebook. Many of my friends don’t like using it either. Although they’re still active Facebook users, most of them find Instagram and Snapchat more enjoyable.
The problem isn’t inherent in the concept of an online social network, but rather in Facebook itself. What would the ideal social network look like? To answer this, I dissected all of the good and bad things about Facebook.
Everybody is on Facebook
The most compelling reason to use Facebook is because everybody else is on Facebook. It’s rare to have a Facebook search come up empty. These “network effects” make it difficult for any competing social network to displace Facebook.
Email is slow and can get lost in a crowded inbox. Texting isn’t ideal for longer back and forth conversations, has poor support for group conversations, and can be invasive if you don’t know the other person well. Facebook messaging fits nicely between the two.
I keep in touch with high school friends through a Facebook group, which we use to plan events and let each other know when we’re in town. In college I joined Facebook groups for my majors and various campus organizations, and they were useful for announcements, asking questions, and connecting with like-minded people.
Planning and coordinating events is easy with Facebook. The downside is that people are flaky online (only 30-50 percent of RSVP’d event guests show up), but that’s probably not a Facebook-specific issue.
Before, if you wanted to share photos online, you’d have to upload them somewhere and email the link to a bunch of people. Facebook allows you to share photos with your friends and family and have them view it in one centralized place.
You can gain a basic understanding of a person by looking through their profile and seeing the pages they follow. I’ll browse through friends’ profiles to see if we have similar intellectual interests, or watch the same TV shows. I’ll even learn new things about people I know well from their profiles.
Facebook pages, if used correctly, can build communities around shared interests. However, I follow dozens of Facebook pages and can only think of three or four that actually update me with things I care about.
Facebook’s privacy issues are well documented, so I won’t repeat them here. What bothers me most is that Facebook tracks you around the internet even when you aren’t logged in. And if I forget to log out and accidentally click one of the ubiquitous “like” buttons around the internet, the action shows up on my profile and my friends’ newsfeed.
The most unpleasant aspect about Facebook is how irrelevant my newsfeed is. I randomly selected posts from my newsfeed and categorized them as “relevant” or “irrelevant,” and only 20 percent fell into the first category. This is abysmally low considering Facebook’s sophisticated algorithms for newsfeed content, my selectivity in accepting friend requests, and my consistent efforts to hide posts from or unfriend people who share things I don’t care about. There’s just too much junk on Facebook, which leads to…
Sharing ad nauseum
Facebook has built up a pervasive culture of sharing. I get spammed with invites from stupid third party apps on the Facebook platform, invites to events that the sender knows I’m not interested in, and Facebook messages from people I don’t want to talk to. My newsfeed is polluted with uninteresting updates from pages I follow and a torrent of photos of pets, food, and babies1. This culture of endless sharing is why Facebook needs newsfeed curation algorithms in the first place.
I had to jump through hoops to make myself invisible to certain people on Facebook chat so they would stop spamming me with messages2. I’ve had to manually unfollow people who post annoying things. I shouldn’t have to keep fighting against my social network like this.
I’ve learned firsthand that people get very upset when you don’t accept their friend requests. Most people I know are Facebook friends with their relatives, coworkers, bosses, and random acquaintances out of social obligation.
Facebook is overloaded with useless stuff. Trending topics, hashtags, Facebook gifts, location check-ins, third party apps, graph search, timeline, etc.
The core features are: profiles (though these have become bloated too), newsfeed, photos, chat, events, and groups. Everything else is extraneous.
These days I hesitate to comment on posts because I’ll be flooded with notifications about unrelated five-word comments from people I don’t know. Facebook has tried to fix this by consolidating notifications and allowing you to unfollow posts, but I’d rather not receive those notifications at all. I no longer stay logged in on the Facebook app because of its push notifications.
The Ideal Social Network
Using this list, we can imagine what the ideal social network (IDS) would look like.
IDS would be premised around a clean, minimal interface with only essential features, similar to Facebook in the early days. It contains only the essentials: profiles, a newsfeed, photos, chat/messaging, events, and groups. Privacy and security settings are simple and streamlined.
Structured Around Friend Circles
Google+ got it right when they created friendship “circles.” In IDS, every friend must be assigned a circle, such as close friends, family, co-workers, etc, and posts can be targeted to individual circles. Circles give better privacy controls and more accurately represent how we manage our social connections in real life. Facebook awkwardly tried to copy the circle idea with Facebook lists, but few use them since they aren’t a central aspect of the network, as in Google+.
Different Business Model
I’m not opposed to personalized ads. If I have to see ads, I’d rather they be relevant. What is unacceptable is Facebook tracking me around the internet, even when I’m logged out, and giving that data to advertisers. IDS users would be able to opt-out of personalized ads or be able to upgrade to a premium, ad-free version. I wouldn’t mind paying a few dollars a month for an ad-free privacy-respecting social network.
Discourages Extraneous Sharing
To prevent newsfeed pollution, IDS would do the following:
- Allow downvoting. The downvotes would be hidden from the original poster, and would be used to make newsfeed curation algorithms more accurate.
- Make it easy to unfollow someone or reduce their posts’ prevalence in your newsfeed.
- Gamify posts by showing engagement statistics. If people see their posts are consistently not getting likes/upvotes or comments, they may change their posting behavior.
Discourages Meaningless Connections
I see three possible solutions:
- Hard limit on the number of friends. Dunbar’s Number suggests we can only maintain 150 relationships at a time, so IDS could limit the number of friends to 300 to add some breathing room.
- Don’t have a suggested friends feature. Instead, require each user to make a conscious, specific effort to add someone as a friend. Most users wouldn’t make that effort for people they barely know.
- Have a “suggested unfriend” feature, based on frequency of interactions and downvotes.
IDS is the kind of social network I want to build and use. Facebook’s enormous userbase means IDS is probably doomed from the start, but it’s something to think about as Facebook enters its second decade.
1- Okay, the baby photos haven’t started yet. Give it a few years.
2- To be invisible on chat for a subset of your Facebook friends, create a separate friend list, add the appropriate people to that list, and change the list settings so they can’t see when you’re logged on.