Facebook: The lesson?

8 09 2006

I’ve avoided writing anything about the latest Facebook drama, largely because there are others who are better experts on the dynamics and intricacies and the immensely popular and loyally followed social networking site.

What I do know is that Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team are a very adept team at fulfilling the site’s mission of connecting people with other people they initimately care about. It is likely this dedication that finds them in hot water.

Michael Arrington and TechCrunch states correctly that Mini Feeds and News Feeds are incredibly useful ways for people to stay informed about their friends.

Liz Gannes notes that, in order for Mini Feeds and News Feeds to work, all Facebook users would really need to remove all their legacy friends to truly represent their current, real social network.

Zuckerberg and Facebook are holding out in order to fulfill this dream, which is lofty and very admirable. Unfortunately, when you’ve set a way of doing things – forcing a new paradigm on your users seems presumptuous. Before the web, most things did not update until you told them to – so it take a little getting used to.

For me, it’s all the preferences. In a 37 Signals “Getting Real” world, it’s about constraints, making decisions for your users and reducing preferences. Pete Cashmore and Mashable duly notes that Facebook simply needs an off switch – and I tend to agree with this.

In essence, Facebook is trying to make a judgment call that Mini Feeds and News Feeds are something you need. In its latest iteration of privacy settings, Facebook has backtracked a bit and made revealing the more personal, spooky items optional. This simply ain’t enough until the pie-in-the-sky, perfectly clean friends list vision comes true.

We face this in our new startup and have actually had some heated arguements about what’s required (forced on you), what’s unavailable (doesn’t meet to our core mission) and what’s optional (useful, but not for everyone).  In the end, we opt for as few preferences as possible, while still giving users the flexibility and options they need where it matters.

In this vein, I don’t think Facebook has made the right decision for right now. The faster the universal off switch is available (even opt-out), the better – it’ll slow adoption of the features but only to those that don’t matter yet: those that haven’t cleaned their friends lists or learned that the feeds are incredibly useful.

The lesson: pay careful attention to what decisions you make for your users. They may come back and bite you.

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