I've written previously about my ongoing love/hate relationship with Facebook (which is now becoming more hate than love), and since numerous changes were made to the web and mobile UI's and algorithms over the last few months, I've wanted to write a new blog.
As they're now again in the news (for the 'wrong' reasons), I thought it an opportune time. Now I am still a fan of Facebook - I still use it every day, and it's a great platform for me (and others) to see what's going on with my friends back in the UK, news here in Finland, and to share things like pictures of my son so that everyone back home can see them. But, things are changing.....
I'm not going to write about the current news story - one where engineers tweaked the news feed algorithm for a number of users to see if it had an impact on users' moods and then published the results of the study - mainly because, to me, this isn't really a big deal. All news feeds are artificially curated by the Facebook algorithms anyway, and as a user of a free service like Facebook, it isn't really surprising, especially when their Terms of Service clearly state they can do what they like with your data and what's shown to you. Instead, I wanted to write about some of the changes that have occurred over the last few months.
Since Facebook's IPO and stock listing it seems to have been lurching from one business model and plan to another, constantly trying to take other competitors out, or to desperately appeal to groups of people that are engaging and communicating with each other elsewere.
Facebook wants to be the single place we all go to share and consume content and to talk to each other. Despite being the largest repository of pictures ever on the planet, and having a huge customer base that chat through it, it didn't like the competition that Instagram and WhatsApp were giving it, so it delved in to it's almost endless bottomless pot of money and bought them. It's also failed with bids for the likes of SnapChat, which is still steadily increasing it's user base, especially among teens and young adults - the market that Facebook is desperate to hold on to or to claw back.
Ridiculously overpriced purchases aside, Facebook has also made plenty of changes to it's own web-based and mobile services - and not for the better, and by the looks of it, not for the end user.
In the web portal we've seen a UI overhaul, which is generally pretty good in my opinion. But we've seen the News Feed and how it behaves messed about with, too. Sponsored posts (adverts) now appear larger and more prominently, and video adverts auto-play - very annoying.
But most annoyingly for me, are the News Feed algorithm tweaks and how content is now shown to me.
We're stuck with a Top Stories and a Most Recent view for our News Feeds. No longer can we curate what we see from our friends ourselves - you can only unfollow completely now - so Facebook is in complete control of what you're seeing. And ultimately this is done to try to force you to engage and to get more adverts in front of you - two things which need to be done in order for them to make money and appease their shareholders.
I detest the fact that I now have two completely different News Feeds, both showing completely different things - even if I follow certain people and have them marked as important or close to me, I still see random things and miss lots of other things that I'd normally want to see - this is especially true as I only stick to the Most Recent feed as I don't want old posts/stories constantly bumped back up the timeline just because someone has 'liked' it or some inane comment has been made on it - I just want a nice, simple, chronological stream of news in front of me.
This is made doubly hard as the mobile app now defats to the Top Stories view on the main tab and to get to Most Recent you now have to More and scroll right down the menu. Admittedly it only takes a couple of seconds, but it's still a terrible user experience. The website also has a habit of every now and then just reverting back to Top Stories and not notifying me. Utterly infuriating.
Facebook is also separating all of it's apps out individually. You'll notice that if you're in the Facebook app and you get a message, you can click on the menu bar but it will take you out to the Messenger app to read and respond (if you have it installed). This will soon be removed completely and users wanting to message via Facebook will have to install the separate Messenger app. This is probably to ensure that as you scroll through the News Feed your attention (or less of it) is drawn away from the 'engaging' content and adverts. This was also the case for their Camera/Photo app (although I believe this has now been discontinued and is no longer supported). Home, the Android 'skin' (a layer of UI), failed. Poke, the original competitor to SnapChat, failed. Paper, which was gorgeously designed, has only been released in the US and hasn't really taken off.
Then there's the new Slingshot app. Oh Lord, what a terrible app this is. Facebook got turned down by SnapChat so decided to make their own similar app (again). But the difference here is that to view a Slingshot someone has sent you, you must first send them one back, and vice-versa. This creates forced engagement - which isn't what users want. SnapChat is popular because it's quick, throwaway, and in a conversational format - you can read a message and then decide if you want to reply, like any other messaging service. Slingshot forces users in to a reply that they may not want to make to get the image that's been sent. Apart from being a terrible process in itself, it also creates an annoyingly out-of-sync conversation with the other person. In the words of Rene Ritchie, "It's free in the App Store, but it will cost you your sanity."
So, Facebook, if you want to keep your users happy and engaged, maybe it's time to start listening to them and not WallStreet 'analysts' and not shareholders. Stop making crap no one really wants, or already has a better solution for, and make Facebook a unified, great, and engaging experience for all users and they'll stick around - and probably read and consume more content and view/click more adverts! Win-win.