Facebook has taken on the role that Microsoft occupied for so many years. They are a dominant product that we have little choice in using if we want to take advantage of a new capacity, in this case the ambient social interactions offered by the concept of social networking. It's both a cause and symptom of this dominance that their product is inferior.
Facebook is a design failure in ways very similar to how Windows was. It obscures important features by attempting to give users access to a large number of unimportant features. It adds new features with neither a clear delineation of their interface nor a considered integration of them into the existing system. It mostly adds features that are transparently motivated by things other than user needs.
The overarching problem is that it concerns itself so much with features. Features of the site are the units by which it’s grown. This is as opposed to the holistic consideration of the needs of its users for a particular task.
The new Timeline design is some of the only work they’ve done showing a broad reconsideration of an aspect of the user’s experience, and it's still confusing. (Alternating content blocks left and right is smart, but the connecting thread in the center is too subtle to train users on such a novel representation of chronology. The life-long timeline is cool, but the data structures show through; after being born, I apparently 'moved' to my birthplace.)
Last year's redesign of their privacy configuration interface was a step in the right direction too, but mostly an afterthought, a Wizard walking you through a complicated process, rather than a simplification of the process.
(There’s a good argument to be made that Facebook’s privacy problem is not really about a philosophical or financial disinterest that they have in our privacy. They have in fact always had controls that allow a user to restrict their information in a very granular way, providing full privacy should a user configure it for that. But users don’t configure things. A good product makes its decisions for itself, presenting users only with what they truly need to decide. In this way Facebook undermines the privacy of its users through poor design.)
So if Facebook is Microsoft, then who is its Apple? Who is the innovative, principled product operation soldiering on at its feet, poised to overtake it at the next big shift? It's probably Twitter, but there may not be one clear champion yet, and instead a network of them, fittingly. Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, hopefully still Flickr, their ilk and their successors are building social behaviors into applications that have more focus on some kind of content creation or other activity. That will be necessary to survive the inevitable upheaval against social networking as a product, a formulation that will become more anachronistic as socially-networked features permeate more of our daily activities. At best Facebook would then become a sort of commodity, the Dell of data.
Social networking is not actually a product. It’s not a technology. It’s not even a feature. It’s a protocol, a communication channel that is new in that it hews to social conventions. The telephone was a technology, and it forced us to create new conventions to suit it. So was email, and text messages were a product of the two. Social networks are a set of interactions with software that can model some of the social conventions we use in relationships.
Social conventions have always grown organically, and so will their expression in software. They will arise from a series of systems growing and dying as each one better encapsulates how we want to know each other online: through photos, through 140 byte quips and quotations, through locations that we visit, etc.
Another thing that was not actually a product was personal computing. It was a new set of processes for doing things in our lives, some made possible by technology, some just modified by it.
Microsoft thought of desktop computing as their unending road into the future, marked by megahertz with increasingly fancy graphics flying by along the side. But that road turned out to be just an onramp for the much larger market of devices. And as they tried to merge, they found they were crowded out by Apple, the competitor who had always treated technology, its endless fountain of new features, as raw material for its products, rather than as the product itself.
Did you see that? The "mark of privilege"? What would your mother think? Mr. Hall! Gender equality, please!
You sound bitter.
I see where you are headed with this analogy, but where it falls short is the comparison of MySpace to Facebook. I would almost venture to say that MySpace used to be the Microsoft of social networking, offering too much customization at the cost of an unstable and unattractive system. In just the way that Microsoft's platform allows the user to customize their hardware to make quite an impressive machine, Facebook's limit on the customization of the user's page delivers an impressive, "pretty," result of blues and clean lines. I think that Facebook began as, and still is more "Apple" than you are giving them credit for. I feel the difference is based around what Facebook actually is: as you stated, a "language" of expression. Whereas Macs and PCs are machines, the OSs offered on each, Windows and Apple are the platforms to the ways in which we will use each product to express ourselves. In these ways we begin an investigation of two social spheres we exist in: our business and personal lives. Windows has done very well offering a platform for business expression, whereas Apple has made up for the personal aspects of expression. What Facebook is currently caught in the middle of, and I believe Mark Zuckerberg is having a difficult time navigating, is the negotiation of Facebook's application as both a business and personal expression platform. It is the pull at either end that is resulting in the changes to privacy, presentation, and functionality throughout Facebook's existence.
Sidenote: I appreciate the style of your page, but consider the mark of privilege you bring with the antiquated "Mr. Your Name" and not "Ms./Mr. Your Name."
Sincerely,Nicholas S. Mueldener
Hey - writing about "Door" for the NY Observer and would like to embed the video. Where can I grab that code?
This is a great article.