Sunday, 16 March 2008

Facebook, I actually rather like you.

This is a vague response to Andy's post of a couple of days ago on the shortcomings of Facebook, and the applications system in particular. While I'm sure some (most? (all?)) of it was tongue-in-cheek, it seems to me representative of many people's reactions to facebook as an easy target for criticism. I'm certainly not going to claim that facebook is perfect, that it is the pinnacle of the social web, or that it is without some fairly serious problems, but I do feel that a lot of the criticism it gets is unwarranted, or, at least, overblown. So, here's my rundown of the things that make facebook great:

It's a web app: Facebook is constantly evolving, without the need for user-interaction. Where a local application needs your permission to install an upgrade (and so is only likely to prompt you occasionally, for fear of annoyance), the facebook developers can and do upgrade their code continuously. There is no delay on bugfixes, and obvious problems can be fixed as soon as they arise. This means that judging it on particular problems is less useful than for more fixed-state applications, for which a particular problem may be around for much longer.

It's still young: Social web applications have been around for a fair while now, but with the expansion of the web in the last couple of years, the latest generation (facebook, myspace, bebo, friendster) now have a large enough userbase that they are interesting other businesses for the first time as a marketing tool. The fact that this is only just happening means that the 'rules' are yet to be made, and the users when those rules are made will have a lot of power over the form they take. Want to make sure that advertising doesn't ruin social sites? Make sure you are still using the service when the as the marketing starts to take effect, so that you can make your reactions known. And this 'service youth' is not just restricted to marketing opportunities, but to the whole social model. For the first time, a community the size of a country is using the same software at the same time. We won't know the problems or opportunities that this might create until they happen, because it is an entirely new type of business, but it seems silly to leave just when it's getting exciting.

It's extendible: The Facebook Development Platform is a hugely exciting tool, taking the 'user generated content' idea to the natural next step by allowing users to define parts of the software for themselves. See something that might be fun and useful, but does not exist? Write it yourself and put it out there. Naturally, the apps that thrive will be the ones that are spread around most easily (at the moment these are mostly viral pyramid-scheme type apps), and this is probably the largest annoyance to the community in general at the moment. While the 'youth' point might excuse the fact that this problem was not anticipated, the 'web' application' point should imply that something can be done about it relatively quickly. And, indeed, a solution has begun to emerge, providing a number of different alternatives to let the community filter the types of applications it wants to see.

It needs to be good: I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating - there is no use for a social network with no community. If facebook do something that pisses off users to the point that they leave, they are risking their entire business model. This is not to say that the model is fragile since people become attached to any software, and will take a certain amount of bad service in their stride before looking for alternatives. However, with the fact that everyone and their brother is able to write a social app nowadays, it becomes more and more important for facebook to stay ahead of the game. If someone else comes along with an app that is percieved to be more secure, more user friendly, more accessible, facebook will need to react or lose users. And such an app will appear if facebook is percieved to have weaknesses. This combined with the relatively small cost and time-investment required online, means that facebook must react quickly to users to give them what they want, rather than (as in other business models) being able to do the bare minimum and still rake in the cash.

So I don't think that the percieved application problems outlined by Andy should be enough to force anyone away from facebook as a social app. Firstly, it it your friends, not random people, who are causing these problems, and it should be relatively easy to convince them to stop (and if not, why are they your friends). And, secondly, as mentioned above, the problem is clear, important and fixable, and is therefore being addressed by the developers.

While I don't think that people should use facebook if they do not enjoy it, since otherwise all pressure on them to keep the service good goes out of the window, I believe that people need to be aware of what is being done, and what can be done, and that rather than a fixed product, facebook is something that can and will change according to the wishes of the community.

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