March 16, 2009 Social networking site Facebook is rolling out its second set of major interface changes in the last 12 months - accompanied by the usual cries of protest from its user base. The most notable change is the new live feed page, which gives a long list of status updates - which will soon include not just mutual friends, but updates from one-way "fan" relationships you may have with bands, brands and celebrities. Sound familiar? Is Facebook the new Twitter?
Facebook is changing again, and while the user base may be almost unanimous in their contempt for the new design, it's a clear indication of how Facebook wants to position itself in the social networking universe.
Facebook in the scheme of social networking
Facebook initially started out as a simple linked profile site, where graduates of Harvard and other universities could keep in touch with "friends" from their year level. It quickly expanded to become available to the general public.
At that point, it was fairly similar to MySpace, although it was differentiated by the fact that Facebook users were encouraged, and even cajoled, into using their real names and personal details. Personal information was available only to mutual friends, where MySpace was entirely public and generally used anonymously.
The "Status Update" tool quickly became a point of focus for Facebook's rapidly growing user base (over 140 Million users at the end of 2008) - users posting snippets of text about their latest thoughts and moods. Each user's home page would display a short feed of recent status updates from friends.
This, of course, is the core functionality of the more recent Twitter network - with the exception that Twitter users can be anonymous, and can "follow" status updates from other tweeters who aren't mutual friends. This allows Twitter users to follow celebrity "Twitterati" such as John Mayer and Shaquille O'Neal that the user may not actually have an offline relationship with.
Twitter's massive user explosion in recent months has clearly got Facebook thinking - and can probably account for a few of the recent interface changes.
The New New Facebook
For starters, the Facebook homepage now looks a lot more like a Twitter feed - a long list of status updates, wall posts, links, notes and photos takes pride of place. The status update prompt has been changed from saying "[username] is..." to a much more Twitter-like "What's on your mind?" and a list of notes, pages, videos and albums appears in the right hand column as "Highlights."
Next, the "Pages" feature, which was mainly used by bands, brands and public figures as a promotional tool, has been revamped to fit the Twitter mindset much more closely. A page is now treated much more like a personal profile, except that users can sign on to accept updates without being mutual friends of the page's owners.
This should make Facebook a much more effective marketing tool - and will allow users to subscribe to Twitter-style feeds from any celebrity, band or personality that uses a Facebook page, leaving "friendship" relationships as just that, but giving users access to fan-page updates in the same homepage feed as their friends' updates. This has proven to be one of the most popular features of Twitter - it will be interesting to see who emerges as the leading Facebook celebrities.
With many users' friend counts now well into the hundreds and thousands, dealing with this expanded flow of information may prove to be difficult - particularly seeing that a large number of Facebook users update their status at least once a day.
In order to help sift the wheat from the chaff, users can now set a variety of filters on their homepage feeds. For the moment, the filter list is quite short, but soon enough it will be possible to filter the front page list to make sure that only news from your nearest and dearest friends - and your favorite fanpages - makes it through to your list.
It's a complicated system - but clearly Facebook is trying to work out how to keep the "real world" friendship connections that form the basis of its popularity, while putting extra emphasis on the news feed homepage and adding a Twitter-like ability to receive updates from entities you're not friends with.
What are your thoughts?
All changes of this nature are painful; the Facebook user base made its displeasure very clear when the old "New Facebook" launched in 2008, and the reaction to this more recent update has been very similar. Users have posted hundreds of thousands of complaints in comments, status updates, and memberships to groups like "1,000,000 AGAINST THE NEW FACEBOOK LOOK!!!"
Do you feel that users will get more out of the new design once they become familiar with the interface, filters and the ability to subscribe to fanpage newsfeeds - or is the confusing new layout too much of a dealbreaker? Let us know in the comments below - you can use your facebook login to comment!