Saturday, May 1, 2010

Facebook’s Unparalleled Success and The Changes You Love To Hate

facebookEvery time Facebook introduces a new format change, its users alight with opposition. Using protest methods such as status updates, notes, petitions, groups, and wall posts that drip with irony, subscribers of Facebook spend about a month recoiling from the shock and demanding a return to the familiar until finally they resentfully fall in line. Three months later, no one remembers what the good ol’ Facebook even looked like.

Users may be aware of the current changes to Facebook that introduce these entities called “Community Pages”: The new way to express yourself on your profile. Now, any non-basic information included on your page must be linked to one of these community pages or those sections of your profile will remain empty. These group-like hubs share connections to Wikipedia articles or official websites for the specified topic, as well as providing a central site where you can gather gossip about any and all  references to said topic. They even show posts that your friends make that might in some way be related to your community activity (Is Physics one of your interests? Lauren Smith has recently changed her status to: I can’t find my Physics book!). Not only do my favorite movies link to their official websites, but now my interest in “Thunder Storms” takes me and my friends to the Wikipedia page describing the weather phenomena in case I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. I could even meet someone new who also enjoys Thunder Storms through our shared community, and our mutual fascinations could blossom into a  strong Facebook friendship.

I’ve had my account with Facebook since the spring of 2005 when it was still in its infancy, offering membership only to college students from select institutions interested in reconnecting with distant high school friends.  I can’t even begin to recollect all of its previous forms and radical format changes. Whenever I try to imagine the Facebook that I signed up for, all I can see is the news feed, which I swear hasn’t always been there…has it?

Today Facebook [Skynet] extends across all borders be they international or intergenerational. For every one scorned and disgruntled user lost, it has attracted three new profiles, one twitter celebrity, three parents who claim they just want to see pictures of their kids that their children never have the time to show them anymore, and seven budding junior high students. 

There seems to be precious little that Facebook can do wrong at this point, especially if it continues to cover itself with trial periods, responsive security, and relative openness about its terms and conditions. It has most users locked in and held by the cyberballs with the tight iron fist of connectivity. How else would I know that an old college teammate of mine is married and pregnant with her first child if not for Facebook? How could I possibly hope to get in touch with a high school friend that has recently moved to my resident city? How the hell did people used to do it? The ease with which one can maintain multiple distant relationships that would otherwise completely dissipate is simply too much to sacrifice.

I can’t count how many times I’ve personally had my index finger poised over the “deactivate” button and failed to follow through – out of fear, out of disgust, out of just wanting to go against the crowd. Most of the times it was because I felt spurned by some change that I thought I could never trust or live with. Yet I always do.

I wonder if it is, in fact, the change itself that sustains Facebook above all other social networking experiments. Having survived and surpassed its greatest competitors at every level, it seems to me that every move Facebook has made has just lured in more users, realizing that no one was willing to give it up over trivial alterations (no I do not want to join your vampire clan, nor do I want to save your lost farm animals, nor do I want to play Scrabble with you! Okay, maybe a little scrabble…) As if realizing too little too late, MySpace tried to tag along and mimic the new formats bred by Twitter’s unforeseen surge in popularity, but by then MySpace was already fading. There are multiple theories for why MySpace suffered (too many predators and pre-teens is a common one) but is it more accurately because MySpace had already failed the test of natural selection when it evolved too slowly, thus failing to attract the irresistible influx of user connectivity?

As I read over the FAQ for these updated Community Pages, the gall of Facebook’s attitude – as if it’s confident that it knows what you want better than you do – strikes me a little. The robotic creepiness with which the site repeats the phrase “ [community pages] will now be the main way to express yourself in your profile!” really does have me checking over my shoulder for Terminators. Under the section Connecting profile interests to Pages, that phrase answers three consecutive questions ( “What if I don’t want to connect to all these Pages?” , “I didn’t connect to any Pages. What happened to some of the information on my profile and how do I get those suggestions back?” , and “I’ve connected to some new Pages, but why are there some things that used to be on my profile that are no  longer there?”). You might want to link to pages, Dave. If you don’t, you’ll lose all of your profile information, and you wouldn’t want that. Connecting to Pages is now the main way to express yourself, Dave.

And yet, despite my reservations, I sort of trust it, inherently. Facebook has never wronged me, per se. It’s protected me from spam and predators and it’s never forced its applications on me without my permission. It’s allowed me to access my friends and family in a way that I take for granted. And while every new addition seems almost arbitrary – change just for the sake of doing something new – they each seem to bring in a new dimension and a new realm of users that quickly becomes commonplace and accepted. Change seems to sustain Facebook, when delivered at semi-regular intervals. I forgive and quickly forget, and Facebook marches on, growing ever steadily. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug. Facebook fights back. It launches its missiles against the targets in Russia. You know the rest…