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Elgan: Fighting Facebook feature fatigue

Facebook is annoying users with complexity, confusion and censorship. Here's what you can do about it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this week that his social network is now "a new way to express who you are."

Zuck, I know who I am. Who are you?

We all joined Facebook to reconnect with old friends, keep in touch with family, and enjoy a stream of comments and photos that kept us up to date with the lives of people we care about.

Suddenly, thanks to a flood of new features, Facebook is a newspaper and a media hub, a scrapbook and life-streaming platform. Which is great -- for Facebook.

Unfortunately, Facebook is now violating three unwritten rules for making users happy with social services:

Keep it simple.

Keep it linear.

Deliver the mail.

And because of these reckless violations, users are becoming unhappy. Very unhappy.

I'll tell you what you can do about Facebook feature fatigue in a minute. In the meantime, let's look at the user-satisfaction rules Facebook is breaking.

1. Keep it simple.

Is Facebook the new AOL? The new Yahoo? These comparisons attempt to crystallize how Facebook, the company, has changed.

But from the user's perspective, Facebook has become the new Microsoft Word. Here's what I mean.

I've used Word since 1990. For several years, every new version was welcome, coming with improved formatting and font handling, speed and ease of use.

But about 10 years ago, something curious happened. New versions stopped being better; they started being worse. Mind you, the technology was better. The new features demo'd well. They even helped sell upgrades. It's just that improvements got in the way of what I wanted to do: Write simple documents, then send or print them.

Word became an HTML editor, a professional book formatting system, an enterprise application platform and an all-purpose communication engine.

The button bar is now consumed by "Styles," "Themes" and giant buttons for inserting text boxes, shapes and pictures, which I never use.

Worst of all, Word became "smart." By default, it now auto-formats documents, adding curly quotes, bulleted lists, live links and other unwanted changes that my editors hate. When I paste in URLs, it adds space before and after the URLs. Word does all kinds of "smart" things, and I hate those things all because they take away control.

I found myself spending the majority of my time either fighting Word's "smart" features for control of my documents, or trying to figure out Microsoft's new, improved random locations for everything.

So after 21 years, I finally quit Word completely, and now use Apple's cheap and simple Pages application. It's great on both my iMac and my iPad. It's clean and simple, and it does everything I need it to do. When I'm done, I just save it in Word format and send it off to my editor.

Feature bloat wrecked Word, and now it's wrecking Facebook.

In just one week, Facebook has added a new Subscribe button, a new Friends system, a new concept for the News Feed, a Ticker, integrated messaging, a new system for sharing third-party applications and new music, video and news sharing options. And there's a host of other new applications coming down the pike. It also added a service called Timeline, which lets people create a life history and life-streaming profile page.

Is more always better?

Sure, some small minority of users want to share absolutely everything that happens in their lives. Some want to spend hours adding and annotating baby pictures to their Timeline. But the majority don't.

Facebook apparently hasn't noticed the simplicity movement. iPads are dominating the market because they do less. Twitter succeeds to the extent that it does because it does less. Most important, Facebook succeeded initially because it did less.

But now, Facebook has become so feature-rich that all of those options will actively interfere with Facebook's core purpose: Social networking.

2. Keep it linear.

All of the popular online communications media channels that have emerged in recent years share the trait of linearity. People like it when messages are presented in reverse-chronological order, with the newest on top. E-mail. Instant messaging. Text messaging. Blogs. Twitter.

Suddenly, Facebook has rolled out non-linearity. A new "Top Stories" concept has been added to the News Feed. So now what appears on top is determined by some unknown criteria having something to do with the frequency of logging in, and those items are labeled with blue triangles.

Some users report that their News Feed is all "Top Stories," others have all items in reverse-chronological order, and still others have "Top Stories" on top, and reverse-chronological below. It takes some mental effort to figure out what's going on every time we log in.

Facebook hasn't abandoned all linearity. A Twitter-like "Ticker" scrolls an unfiltered real-time stream of abbreviated items showing every action by every friend. And a new "Timeline" feature, available soon, seeks to document your life over the long haul, and it's in the reverse-chronological order people crave.

But the main stream on Facebook is the News Feed, and it's confusingly non-linear -- sometimes.

People want linear. They don't want some software algorithm digging up an old item and putting it on top.

3. Deliver the mail.

If Zuck really wanted to improve Facebook, he should have killed EdgeRank.

The single worst feature of Facebook has been its EdgeRank algorithm for censoring the News Feed. Every post on Facebook is given an invisible score, based on affinity, weight and time. Affinity measures the relationship -- the software decides how important the person who posted is to you. Weight is how "good" the content is, based on whether it's a picture or text (pictures are "better"), and how many people have Liked it or commented on it. And scores decrease over time.

Unless a post gets a high score, Facebook will not deliver it. The company simply censors your News Feed, cutting much or most of what your friends post.

Nobody else does this except Facebook. Twitter and Google+ deliver 100% of the posts your friends send out. Google search uses algorithms to sort results, but not filter them. They still give you 100% of the results.

Facebook alone aggressively censors your feed by default. The reason they've gotten away with it for this long is that most users had no idea it was happening. Facebook users generally believed that their friends were seeing their posts. In fact, only a small, unknowable subset of your friends typically see what you post.

This fact is now slowing dawning on the larger Facebook community, now that the new News Feed has been rolled out. It's clearer that what you see in your News Feed is only a fraction of what your friends are posting.

Nobody wants Mark Zuckerberg deciding which relationships are important, and which are not.

Each post has a drop-down menu that lets you affect what gets delivered by each poster. You have to remember to use this menu for just about every message in your News Feed. But why should you have to? EdgeRank is an unwelcome intrusion, merely something you have to fight in order to assert some measure of control over your own social life.

Thanks to Facebook's new design, thousands of users are discovering that Facebook is failing the most basic test of user happiness: It's not delivering the mail.

At the end of the day, there's only one solution to Facebook's violations of these three unwritten rules, and the resulting Facebook feature fatigue: Quit Facebook. Join Google+. And bring all your family and friends with you.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.


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