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My Time Isn’t Facebooked

by Editor on October 10th, 2011

Over the last few weeks, I have been complaining on Twitter and Facebook about the underwhelming nature of the changes that Facebook has been making to its user interface and, in particular, it’s timeline. It isn’t that I see anything sinister or malicious in what Facebook is doing; I doubt they’re being any more aggressive than they already were about using knowledge of us for their own remunerative purposes. It’s just that these changes are poorly designed: Facebook seems to have a one dimensional view of how people might want to use their little self-contained universe to share information. And I seem to be outside that singular dimension.

I don’t have 4,000 Facebook “friends.” I don’t even have 400 Facebook friends, nor do I necessarily aspire to have that many. It’s not that I am an ardent devotee of “Dunbar’s Number“—I think people can have a wide circle of friends, in varying degrees of connectedness—but I do think that there are limits to how much information one can truly absorb about people within these different circles, and how close those relationships can actually be.

So to the extent that Facebook, too, has recognized this issue (in light of the ease-of-use of Google+‘s “circles” approach), I’m irritated by the change but can get on board with it. It’s fine to define people as “friends” versus “acquaintances,” and certainly there are a couple of Facebook friends I have “met” only through other friends and would surely place in that latter category. But there’s something irritating about the retroactive nature of this process—of having to go back and reestablish your connection to each of the (in my case) 194 people with whom you have a connection, in order to sort out the flow of information you will see from them. Facebook thinks it can do this automatically, but it can’t—not accurately, anyway.

Which leads me to my other complaint, one that is not a mere irritation but has actually brought me to the point of using Facebook less and less frequently: the over-curation, rather the automatic curation, of the timeline. This sounds silly, no doubt, especially if you’re a Facebook user with several hundred or even a few thousand friends: no one can wade through that much stuff, so having a set of filtering mechanisms is surely useful. I get it.

But let me turn them off. Because I don’t want them. And while you’re at it, Facebook, bring in someone new, someone with some common sense to help you with your user interface and control mechanisms.

With 194 friends, I can stay on top of things quite efficiently—when “stories” are chronological. Even as my network has grown, I have been able to manage that. I hide a few friends’ Farmville posts, I know I can usually (but not always) skip items from some other people. It’s very easy to scroll through a chronological list and see what’s there and what’s not. It’s much harder to do this when information is out of order—especially posts from the same person, where subsequent, more commented posts wind up as “Top Stories,” but have no evident antecedent because Facebook has decided to bury them. Or they wind up as posts in this ridiculous secondary timeline Facebook created, in the sidebar.

Reading this interview by Liz Gannes on AllThingsD with Facebook’s “Timeline product manager” Sam Lessin left me cold—and I think Facebook’s efforts are misplaced. All these “powerful” tools they’re talking about will make an already-too-complicated ecosystem even more complicated and harder to manage. It seems to me what people want to do is share information, and so to the extent that Facebook (and Twitter, and other systems) encourage that, well, great. But when it starts to become too complicated to share your own information, or to find other people’s information, then that system loses its power. In other words, Facebook is starting to turn into the Windows of social networks: it may be the dominant platform of its genre, but it’s poorly constructed, badly organized, and unnecessarily difficult to manage even simple tasks.

Why do I care? Perhaps I care more than many folks because I went through such a conscious exercise to get myself engaged in these systems in the first place. Maybe it’s because I work in communications, in a field that has come to rely on these tools as important mechanisms for sharing information. Maybe it’s because, as I type this on my MacBook Pro, drafting it in Evernote, getting ready to publish it through WordPress, and eventually to promote it through Twitter … it’s because Facebook has just become so damn inelegant.

Life is too short. I’ll keep using Facebook—I’m not quite ready to go cold turkey, though Sam Lessin is giving me reasons to reconsider down the line—but I already look at it much less than I used to. And I’m finding, in spite of myself, that there are indeed other engaging and valuable things I can do with my time.

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UPDATE (10/14/11): Time Magazine has an essay from last week’s issue (subscription required) by Harry McCracken about Facebook. The subtitle says everything: “Will Facebook’s shift toward data sacrifice it’s soul?” McCracken is off on a slightly different argument–more focused on the underlying mechanisms than the user interface–but in my view they’re clearly related. There is a balance between data wonkiness and user satisfaction. Apple (as one example) strove hard to get that right. Facebook now seems to be leaning in the other direction.

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