Saving Face(book): How a dominant site screwed up

John
John Gushue
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Facebook sparked a real uproar this winter when, briefly, it changed its terms of reference and added language vague enough to imply that it would own everything everyone put through it. Stung by the vitriol of its user base, Facebook pulled down the terms quickly.

But all that anger has been eclipsed, I think, by the sour taste of the latest Facebook redesign, which kicked into gear a few weeks ago.

Surf's up - Facebook sparked a real uproar this winter when, briefly, it changed its terms of reference and added language vague enough to imply that it would own everything everyone put through it. Stung by the vitriol of its user base, Facebook pulled down the terms quickly.

But all that anger has been eclipsed, I think, by the sour taste of the latest Facebook redesign, which kicked into gear a few weeks ago.

Where users once had some say in determining the sorts of things they wanted to see in their feed of friends' activity (more updates from particular people, fewer videos, more links, etc.), we all now must see the latest, up-to-the-second activity of everyone in our network. Our old preferences are meaningless and are filled to the brim with clutter.

This Twitter-like, all-things-for-everyone approach, shows how Facebook has been rattled by the cool kid on the online block, but also that it doesn't appreciate what it's had all along. I use Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis, but in very different ways. I check my two Twitter feeds (one for me, one for work) habitually, but with a quick, scanning eye.

Facebook, though, I use for downtime, to relax. Apart from feeding my Scrabble addiction (through the gift that is Lexulous, formerly Scrabulous), I keep tabs on friends, activities in St. John's, and what's going on in the zeitgeist. It used to be an easy to do, but that's much less the case.

For Facebook, I don't mind details, but I want a quick read of the big picture. What I don't want to know is every last thing that everyone in my circle has been doing.

For instance, a few of my friends - and they're lovely people - can't get enough of sending e-cards, jokes and various online stunts to their friends. That's nice. But now, thanks to the new Facebook layout, I see every last one.

I do, to be fair, have options. I can "hide" all activity for any individual, which seems a bit much. Perhaps reacting to the uproar, Facebook now lets me hide any particular activity, which has been great for the curmudgeon in me that can't see Easter egg gifts and such cutesy rot.

My main complaint? Facebook is cramping our style. In its early phases, Facebook let us customize the look and feel of what we saw and how we used it, with simple, drag-and-drop components. No more. Third-party applications are relegated off the main page, forcing us to use bookmarks or shortcuts; it's all the better, I assume, for Facebook to push what it wants, namely advertising.

I've been building workarounds. Months ago, I built groups (e.g., family, co-workers, etc.) to sort out the people closest to me. I've been expanding those and relying on them more, mostly to avoid the clutter on my main page.

As well, I have to admit that I've noticed something positive with the new design. Maybe it's coincidence, but more and more people seem to be commenting and responding to simple things like status updates and links, even with the banal "like" tab, which indicates only that you like what you've just read. More often, though, I've seen some witty exchanges erupt within minutes over the most trivial of things. It may all be meaningless, but it's a hoot to see it all unfold so quickly.

A final point: I can't count the number of people I've heard or read grousing about Facebook's redesign. "We're over," a friend of mine told me, with the same irritation you'd expect to hear about a breakup. And I thought of just that sentiment when I read her latest status update, written weeks later.

Facebook is surely counting on peeved users to swallow their anger and stick around. But a site that had everything going its way only just last year has been screwing up royally lately and ought to listen much more carefully to what its users want.

Elsewhere this week:

Boxee

www.boxee.tv/

Boxee has a lot of buzz in the entertainment industry these days, for good and bad. The good: Consumers like that it can help get Internet-based video (from network sites, among many others) to your TV. The bad: some networks and producers are scared to death of it. This is, indeed, a weird thing; since the networks have been hemorrhaging viewers for years, wouldn't it be good to help foster new ways to reach lost eyeballs? You'd think.

A few problems. Boxee for now is available only for Apple and Linux. PC users will have to wait. As well, Canadians who have been shut out by the geocaching of key U.S.-based providers will still have to wait for those rights issues to be ironed out. All the same, this is a tool to keep an eye on.

John Gushue is a news writer for CBCNews.ca in St. John's. E-mail: surf@thetelegram.com. Read past Surf's Up columns and daily updates at his blog: johngushue.typepad.com.

Organizations: Apple

Geographic location: St. John's, U.S.

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