March 11, 2013
The F Word.

Last week, in case you hadn’t noticed, Facebook launched its latest design refresh, in an attempt to breathe life into the rather dormant monster it has become.

If you’ve read this blog before, or my Tweets, you will have gathered I am not a fan of Facebook. Its original remit made great sense: a private social network for college alumni. Since its transition to the public-space a whole different set of challenges have compromised its relevance. I’ve discussed this extensively in the past on this blog, so I won’t repeat myself (well, not too much).

Suffice to say, Facebook’s post-IPO valuation stasis is not good and it is clearly going to take something more than just UI/UX fine-tuning to make this stock a compelling one; along with a massive downgrading in its current price. Where Facebook goes from here is anybody’s guess. I don’t think anyone there quite knows what to do next…

"Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises? That is a peculiar condition of society which enables a whole nation to instantly recognize point and meaning in the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the mouth of a distinguished speculator in lands and mines this remark: I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars." ~ Mark Twain.

Reading my latest find in a local second-hand bookshop made me think of Facebook: as it is now serving a function in a public-space it faces the design challenges of public spaces in the real-world. Currently, it is not really analogous to anything in our daily lives, and this is surely its problem: it increasingly feels artificial and irrelevant. A non-space.

"We must buy with discrimination and so prove to the designers, who set the machines to work, that we are no longer bound by habit or indifference to accept whatever is offered." ~ Christian Barman.

A pub - (or a cafe, if taking a more continental perspective) is only as vibrant and desirable as a place to hang-out as the clientele it attracts. We will have all seen such places go in and out of vogue. Facebook is definitely not a place to be seen in at the moment, so the decline in patronage and activity is aggregated with each user who interacts with it less and less. Overcoming that is a massive challenge for Facebook. The company culture dichotomy seemed to be reflected in the style of the presenters at last week’s launch: the various presenters were very bright/confident young people who seemed to be dressed (in the style of their leader) to appeal to the college demographic; reflecting its origins. Facebook seems increasingly uncomfortable in the public-space and regressing, almost - which would explain Zuckerberg’s time-warp wardrobe, somewhat. Twitter’s CEO may appear to be a more suited-and-booted character but I suspect he is in fact much more comfortable in himself and where his company is going. I am certainly not saying one has to dress in a certain manner to be credible, but I do believe that in this instance it reflects the discomfort with the world he (and his company) feels: ironically, in this instance, the clinging-on to laid-back college-kid clothes depicts the opposite of being at ease with one’s surroundings. Neither is it a grunge-style of lethargic rebellion. It’s an affectation; and not a very good one at that…

"I really haven’t had that exciting of a life. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life. So I pretty much like to make it up. I’d rather tell a story about somebody else." ~ Kurt Cobain.

I have had direct experience where Facebook adds worth in targeted/niche group interests. A few years ago I set-up Facebook Pages devoted to Grayson Perry and Be Bop Deluxe’s founder, Bill Nelson - both are favourite artists of mine and neither seemed to be well-served online, where fans could discuss their works. I have also had positive experiences establishing Pages for topics as diverse as an iOS game and a charitable cause after the Japanese tsunami. It seems to be ideal for hosting niche causes and interests, especially if transient. However, when it comes to mainstream branding and advertising I have to question its relevance and effectiveness - as it seems do many others, increasingly.

"Think about what people are doing on Facebook today. They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. They’re connecting with the audience that they want to connect to. It’s almost a disadvantage if you’re not on it now." ~ Mark Zuckerberg.

With community discussion-tools now easily available, that can be discreetly embedded into one’s own online presence, I do not understand why so many companies abdicate from the responsibility of their brand and entrust their customer-engagement to a third-party. This is lazy and foolish behaviour indeed.

Fred Wilson coined an expression some while ago, BYOB. With Facebook increasingly desperate to monetise, the compromises in your audience being hosted by a third-party are becoming increasingly evident. Why not develop your own compelling apps and online presence? It’s not hard and you will be in control of your audience. OK, it will cost you some money and time but this stuff is not hard nowadays.

Anyway, what’s the cost of your not having control of how you engage with your audience? This is a no-brainer.

Whilst on the F-word, I deleted FourSquare from my iPhone last week: I never used Facebook Places but have used FourSquare for a long time, always admiring its UX/UI design (although this is often compromised by its - still - unacceptably erratic GPS connectivity). I don’t really travel much nowadays and we very rarely eat out, so its relevance to me is now minimal. I did think about checking in at one of these a while ago but I guessed the irony would be lost on most people…

"Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness." ~ George Bernard Shaw.

I’d like to see apps moving more into offering real-value to people who don’t necessarily lead the lifestyle of the app’s founders (and their VCs) and their perception of what the world needs; in most cases the apps cater for the needs of themselves and their peer-groups, nothing more. The Gilded Age meets Silicon Valley: we see it time and time again. Could do better…

"There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served." ~ Jane Jacobs.

At one time I would have no doubt been an obsessive power-user of such apps: up until a few years ago I spent pretty much all my time globe-trotting, eating out, socialising, etc. Such apps - and the devices that power them - didn’t exist back then and when they did start to enter the market the audience participating was so small there was no meaningful interaction. If I start travelling a great deal again, who knows… I may re-install the FourSquare app. Maybe.

"There’s a danger in the internet and social media. The notion that information is enough, that more and more information is enough, that you don’t have to think, you just have to get more information - gets very dangerous." ~ Edward de Bono.

Regardless, the trend suggests that the most lauded apps are primarily catering to the whims of a section of society that is increasingly detached from reality. It’s bad enough that society is becoming so polarised; it would be nice if technology didn’t just follow the same tired old pattern of other derelict industries…

  1. carl-rahn-griffith posted this
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