Once again, Facebook has rolled out some new changes, and once again my news stream is filled with updates along the lines of “Facebook has ruined MY internet” (come on, it wasn’t intended as a personal insult). The changes in question are the addition of lists as a first class entity (in the interface – they were there in the features before), some automatically grouped lists, and the idea of top stories. Actually there is also the new Subscribe button, but judging from the majority of the messages I see, that hasn’t been noticed by most people. I’m in a different camp though, I think the changes are a step in the right direction, and my only complaint is that they don’t go far enough!
I used to work in a social network startup, we were going to take over the internet, and replace Facebook as the number one social destination, along with every other social network startup in 2007/2008. We really didn’t understand marketing (specifically that “Naked” was a really bad brand name) nor did we understand just how complex the technology behind Facebook was to reproduce, which is why we went out of business. We did understand one thing though, which was that as more and more people use social networks, the signal to noise ratio is going to get worse, and controlling what messages you send to who, and what messages you get from who is going to be more and more important.
I use Facebook, and I use Twitter, and I have dabbled on Google +, and they are all struggling with the same problem. Let me try and explain what that problem is.
I send and receive messages on a few different subjects: Dance, Photography, Agile development, Web development and personal stuff (such as going for a beer this evening). Also, I am friends with Haje, who sends messages on a range of different topics: Photography, writing, travelling, and going for beers this evening. All three social networks let me group my friends (Facebook and twitter call this lists, and Google + calls it circles, but they are the same thing). I can put Haje in my “Photographers” List/Circle, and I can put him in my “Beer Buddies” List/Circle.
All three networks are encouraging us to group our contacts like this, it means I can then filter what I see (which in turn means I get more out of being on the network and I will come back). I can choose to see just my photographer friends, and catch up on photography, or just my dance friends, and catch up on dance. This is great, and is what Google + and Twitter have had for a while. Actually Facebook had it for a long time too, but their interface was terrible! So bad that very few people even noticed the feature (all this latest change really does is show off that they have the same features as Twitter and Google +).
This is actually pretty awesome, when Haje posts an cool post about photography, I can find it easily in my “Photographers” list. However the messages he sends about writing and travelling, which are not my thing (nothing against what he says, its just a subject I’m not interested in) or about meeting for beer (which I am interested in) all turn up in my photographers list . This is just wrong, It makes my “Photographers” list harder to read, because, guess what, most photographers talk about other stuff too! (Not all of them – but that is another story).
It gets worse. Because Haje is in my “Beer Buddies” list, all those same messages appear in that list too. I just read them in my “Photographers” list!
My friends are not one dimensional
The idea of grouping friends into lists really doesn’t work, because my friends are not one dimensional people who only have one type of relationship, or one thing they are interested in.
What is really needed, is a way to set up lists that filter posts not based on who they are from, but a combination of who they are from, and what they are about. That way I can go to my photographers list, and just see photography based messages. That would be something I actually find useful. Twitter has hashtags, which are the closest I have seen to this, but they are not good enough. The message sender has to tag what subjects a message is about (hard enough with compose a message in 140 characters, try categorising it too!), and I have to be listening to that *exact* tag. Plus at the moment it only lets you filter by hashtag, not by a combination of hashtag and people you follow.
To be fair, what I’m asking for is hard, really very hard. Think of something difficult, and its a lot harder than that. But I’m pretty sure that whichever of the three big social networks gets there first, is going to take a big lead.