Facebook Heralds a New Age of Social Networking

TL;DR: You didn’t think it was possible, but you’ll soon bring even more of your life on Facebook. And you’ll love it in spite of the privacy concerns, because it’ll give you more and cooler interaction with your friends. If you like sharing bits of text (most people do), you’ll love sharing tastes and activities and you’ll never look back.

Part I: The Gist

I was watching the Facebook keynote yesterday, where Mark Zuckerber was giving the details of what is probably the most ambitious update to his social network yet. Midway through, I stopped everything and went on Google+ to deliver this eloquent quote: “Zuckerberg is seriously blowing my mind right now”.
That was over 24 hours ago. I’ve had time to sober up, compose myself, and think about what was announced and whether or not is is actually groundbreaking. And here’s where I stand today: “Zuckerberg seriously blew my mind last night”.

Here’s why: he found a way to bring even more of our real lives into Facebook.
It might seem trivial to you, but brilliant ideas often seem that way.
Stay with me here: until now, we were mostly sharing status updates and photos. These are actually a very small percentage of what makes up our lives. With these changes, Facebook is bringing another enormous chunk of our lives into the world of social networking. Music, TV shows, movies, sports, games, and much much more… All of this will soon become available for sharing with your friends and family. And we’re not talking about you saying you like The Doors; that was always possible. We’re talking about your friends listening to The Doors with you, right there and then, as you fire up the song from across town or across the continent. We’re saying they can start watching The Shining for the first time, because you felt like watching it again that night. One click, and boom, they’re there. It just works. We’re actually talking about bringing the immense power of sharing that we already know to a whole new section of what we do. Sharing tastes, not just thoughts. Come on, tell me all that doesn’t sound like a huge amount of fun!
Not excited? Ok, different approach. Can we agree that life and communication were different before we had social networks? That brought on a huge change, right? Back then, we went from social networks that covered 0% of our lives (they didn’t exist) to social networks that cover 10% of our lives (text and photos). That was huge. Well, now we’re going from social networks that cover 10% of our lives (text and photos) to social networks that cover 40% of our lives (tastes, culture, activities, etc). After that, the ones where you can only share bits of texts and photos will have to seem incredibly dull… or at least very niche.

Part II: Details

Part I was the general idea and the main part of the article. If you’re not interested in technical details you can stop reading now; the rest of the article is mostly my understanding of how and why all of this is coming together.

The thought process that brought about the new Facebook

First, they understood their main set of problems:
– Facebook has so many users, what they need now is for sharing to expand.
– Apps are a great way to share (many do so on Twitter) but it crowds the feed.
– The Facebook feed is already super messy and crowded, getting worse by the day.
Then, they engineered a set of solutions:
– Moving the feed to the side and renaming it “the ticker”.
– Making a system for apps to share even more (music, food, sports, everything).
– Creating a new feed that magically shows only the cool stuff from the ticker.
And here are the expected results for the new Facebook:
– Users share tons more stuff that they didn’t share before (through apps).
– Facebook has more info for friends to see, and advertisers to pay for.
– Haters hate but Facebook wins at the Internet, for like the 5th time in a row.

Going deeper

So here are the features that Zuckerberg announced at the F8 opening keynote:
– The Timeline, a new kind of profile that organizes everything you’ve ever posted or shared into a beautiful (and scary) scrapbook style life story page.
– The new Open Graph, which allows developers to make you share even more of your life with your Facebook friends (and advertisers).
– The new Feed, launched a few days ago (but is part of that whole affair), which chooses which updates to display more intelligently.
I’ll leave the Timeline behind for now (although it is awesome), and discuss how the new Feed and the new Open Graph are coming together to realize the vision.

1) The New Feed
Until now, the norm on every social network has been the good old linear feed. A giant chronological list of all the relevant updates. That was great when we shared less, but now it’s become a complete mess: dozens, sometimes hundreds of updates, and you have to dig into all of them and hope you’ll find something cool. It’s unwieldy and everyone knows it. Yet everyone uses the same model; Google+, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram…
A few days ago, Facebook retired that feed to a tiny upper right corner, renaming it the “ticker”. You can still look at it, but that’s not “the feed” anymore. It doesn’t drive your experience. They replaced it with a new feed, created by a magical algorithm that tries to guess what’s important to you, depending on how often you come on the site, what your friends are sharing, and a million other things. Essentially, it should surface important stuff that happened since you were last here, not what happened 10 minutes ago.
NB: I realize Facebook already had the “top stories” view, but this is much larger.

2) The New Open Graph
By doing a lot of complicated and scary things (less asking for permission, longer caching times, etc), Facebook is creating a completely new social ecosystem which applications can use it to start broadcasting update to “the ticker”. This is a bit similar to the way that Twitter works when broadcasting what you do on different apps. Facebook wants more of that, because it creates an incredibly deep information pool. But they’ve also been bitten by too much crap in the feed. So the solution is to allow applications to post what you’re doing to your ticker. And they’ll be posting a lot of it. Listen to music on Spotify? Enable the app and it’ll go on the ticker. Watching TV on Hulu? Same thing. Read a book? Ticker. Liked an article? It’s there too.
And here’s the killer feature: click any one of those updates, and you can see/hear/read/play what that thing. It’s a direct line to what your friends are doing. You’re not just reading about it, you’re experiencing it with them, in real time if you wish to.

3) How it comes together
I know what you’re thinking: it’s too much. If Twitter is confusing, something like that will be impossible to follow. Many people even use Flipboard to read Twitter, because it’s just too much crap to sift through.
Well, on Facebook you won’t have to. remember that “new feed”? It does all that for you. It’s almost an integrated Flipboard of sorts. These annoying updates, they go to the ticker. That’s the “Twitterlike backbone of information”. You can look at them if you really want, but you don’t have to. What you’re looking at is the new feed, which selects and organizes all that information. It can recognize patterns, figure out what’s trending, understand what’s important… But you don’t have to know what’s behind it, it “just works”.
Haven’t been on Facebook it three days? You’ll have a summary of the important things that happened. A new TV show five of your friends have been watching, a recipe your parents cooked and your sisters loved, and that playlist your girlfriend created last Tuesday. And if you’re there every hour, you’ll see things happen almost in real time, with a lot more minute details, because the algorithm knows you’re there often.

Conclusion: Neato, right?

Yup. Well, at least in theory. We’ll have to wait a bit longer to see how this whole thing actually performs. But if it works, everybody wins. For Facebook, it’s going to be great. They get more info on everyone, and can sell more ads and make more money. Yay! And for users, it’s going to be great… if you’re ok with the fact that you’ll be sharing a lot more information.



Bonus 1: A few things that need saying.

  1. Reading all this, you might think I’m a Facebook fan, but I actually don’t use it all that much, and I like Google+ a lot more. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to its importance, or to its amazing ability to know what works and adapt to what people want.
  2. I’m not predicting the future here. All of this might fail; I am just amazed by the reasoning, the concept, and the potential. What happens next, gods only know. I think it’ll work, but it’s just my humble opinion.
  3. We’re only talking about social networking here. Some people have been taking the piss out of tech commentator for propping it up as a “major shift” (MG Siegler shares my enthusiasm). But of course we’re not talking about an actual world changing event. If you care about social networking (and, to an extent, the Internet), you should pay attention. If you don’t, you can safely go about your business, there are more important things happening indeed.
  4. With all that said, I think Zuckerberg is a genius. Jobs or Gates caliber. He has the rare gift for forming a vision and understanding what the future will be, when other are scrambling with what’s happening now. Also, many people found him awkward, but I thought he did a very solid presentation, leaping from a truly poor speaker a few years back to a very engaging one today. I think he’s been watching a lot of Steve Jobs tapes… and it’s working.
Bonus 2: haters will hate.

I’ve heard a lot of outrage in the past 24 hours, mostly divided in two camps: those who hate the new Open Graph because it’s too much sharing, and those who hate the new feed because it’s too confusing. And both these groups usually predict this will be the end of Facebook. Right. Ok, lesson time:

  • If people wanted to leave Facebook, they’d have left Facebook.
  • If people didn’t want to share on Facebook, they wouldn’t share on Facebook.

On sharing: People love to share. They’re shy at first, but eventually they do it. Why? Because it’s cool to be part of your friends and family’s life, even if they’re 1000km away, even if you don’t see them every week. Facebook, and social networks in general, are a wonderful tool, and what you loose in privacy, you gain in enjoyment. This won’t change.
On interface: Sure, there are revolts sometimes, and Zuck is clever enough to adapt and compromise and scale things back a bit. Maybe it’ll happen here and all of this will have to be scaled back. But if History teaches us anything, it’s that this kind of outrage usually isn’t real. If it’s still there two months from now, I’ll worry. I’m betting it won’t be.

But you don’t have to take my word for it; despite the repeated prophecies of their demise, they now have 800 million people using their service… That’s 50 million more than they did in July! Come on, admit they are doing something right, even if you (or I) don’t like it all that much. I’m not saying there can’t be a different opinion, a reason why this is a bad idea or  why it will fail miserably. For all I know it very well might fail, and I could be completely off the mark here. But for the love of God, if those who think so could explain it with other arguments than “it sucks” or “I hate it”…

NB: I also really like the “this is not new” argument. These people take a look at Twitter and say “I can already send text messages to my friend”. And there is another interesting lesson that came out of these discussions: Google Wave has become the Godwin point of technology. Anytime someone announces something original and tech commentators are excited about its potential, someone will say: “you liked Google Wave and it failed!”

[Edit, Sept 25th] Reorganized the structure of the article, which was confusing. Also changed up a few sentences for clarity, and moved the previous conclusion (warning people about sharing too much and “friends”) to a separate upcoming article.

September 24th, 2011