Here’s a phrase I’ve been reading a lot on blogs and comments recently:
“I’m finally through with Facebook. Seriously, I’ve made my mind up and I’m going to quit (I haven’t yet, but it’s getting closer every day.)”
It’s sad. They sound a bit like smokers when they’ve got to the stage where they hate cigarettes but they can’t give up.
I should know. Somewhat shamefully, I am a smoker and I’ve been on Facebook since 2006.
Despite using Facebook quite a lot I have never managed to ‘bond’ with it in the same way I have with other social technology brands, like Twitter, Flickr and Delicious for example. I keep going back to Facebook (less these days) but only ‘cos I have to. It’s a bit like an abusive relationship, Facebook is always cross these days.
In spite of all the lovely time we’ve spent together, I just don’t have anything left inside me for Facebook any longer. It’s over. I feel cold. More seriously, the brand totally fails my t-shirt test: would you wear the logo on a t-shirt? Twitter, yes. Flickr, maybe. Delicious, yes. Facebook, no way.
Why? Because I genuinely feel something for those brands. They have a voice and character over and above just what other users bring to them (apart from Delicious, which kind of has an autistically brilliant way of resisting change whilst remaining cool – only half-joking…). By contrast, Facebook has always been almost grotesquely, spectacularly, monumentally dull.
Sure, I know the argument that Facebook must be deliberately bland so you can fill it up with your own good self and shiny, vibrant friends. The argument goes that Facebook doesn’t necessarily need a personality, because it’s a utility. I asked the good people of Twitter and it’s clear that many of them agree with the ‘completed by you’ argument. However, I’m not so sure.
In fact, Twitter is a case in point – another service that’s filled up with *you*.
On one level, it’s just another utility – another set of pipework and toobs to connect me with friends and other people. But I care about Twitter. It’s charming. It has a face (how ironic that Facebook doesn’t), and it has an identity that I can take and customise in soooo many ways. I can make Twitter in my own image and yet it remains a strong brand with a discernible personality and voice. Twitter is easy to love.
In this respect, I’m not entirely sure I get the argument that Facebook *must* be anodyne or you wouldn’t be able to add your shiny self and mates.
Compare the graphics above with what you get at Facebook, below, ranging from sinister to about as charming as Microsoft Office 98:
How did this happen?
Well, firstly we should remember that Facebook grew out of being a glorified college address book. It was conceived as a kind of Ivy League anti-MySpace and brought into life by a preppy geek. It looks very much like someone, somewhere along the line, got a bit carried away with the idea of ‘utility’. Someone thought that a good way to communicate that Facebook was a utility would be to make it look and feel about as love-able as a gas company, an ISP or a telecoms carrier.
If you want to read how tied in knots people can get with the utility metaphor you should have a look at the comments on Danah Boyd’s recent blog post ‘Facebook is a utility; Utilities get regulated‘. There are many excellent points made – including this one:
“Being a utility isn’t the same as providing it”
Whatever, the utility-or-not debate is for another blog post. Even if Facebook is a utility, it doesn’t have to look like a bunch of greasy blue overalls, and behave like a high-handed, uncaring and intransigent monopoly.
Does this matter?
A lot of people – including Facebook – don’t seem to think so. They think it’s just a bunch of what Danah Boyd calls “weirdo tech elites” stirring up trouble. I think it really matters, and from the tiny amount of canvassing on Twitter that I did yesterday it’s clear that I am not alone:
The history of social networks shows us that people do move on. I tried to describe it like this in the Telegraph in February:
The history of the internet is littered with the bodies of dead and dying social networking services – Six Degrees, Firefly, Friendster, and, closer to home, our very own Friends Reunited. Each experienced explosive growth and appeared to be a permanent fixture, until they were rapidly abandoned for something else. In the history of social networking, the moment of apparent ubiquity often echoes with the crack of doom.
So, why should Facebook be different? Are we seriously to believe that, like Lehman Brothers, it’s “too big to fail”? What could bring it down? And what will replace it?
Of course, the numbers of people using those services was far lower than the half billion souls we’re talking about on Facebook, and they were less sophisticated, and its mainstream now – but I can’t see why this couldn’t simply happen again on a much grander scale.
Some people (early adopters) will start using another service *as well*, not instead of, the one that’s about to die. They will tell everyone else how the new service is just like Facebook but better: it has a face, it’s ‘cool’, they ‘love’ it, it doesn’t treat you like sh*t and you don’t have to worry about your privacy. They will use Facebook to organise the mass-migration, and then they will go.
Being unlovable and haughty with users’ concerns hands competitive advantage to ‘the next service’, and as the Diaspora phenomenon on Kickstarter shows us – people will jump at the even the glimmer of a chance of something better than Facebook. Diaspora shows that people are willing to put their hands into their own pockets to try and make it happen! Facebook has taken many years and a ton of cash to make a whole new category of digital behaviour mainstream. Building on its shoulders will be quicker and cheaper, and the services that come next will be designed specifically to exploit its weaknesses. I can’t wait (and obviously I want the Diaspora kids to do it as I will already own the t-shirt)!
Not having a personality is a serious disability on the Social Web. It also creates a dangerous vacuum that will tend to draw in whatever else is hanging about, such as the toxic coverage Facebook is generating by arrogantly overplaying its hand and defying its critics.
I don’t know if Facebook is a real utility, but it’s certainly behaving like a bit of a tool.