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Monday
Sep262011

You Are Not Facebook's Customer

(CNN) -- The ire and angst accompanying Facebook's most recent tweaks to its interface are truly astounding. The complaints rival the irritation of AOL's dial-up users back in the mid-'90s, who were getting too many busy signals when they tried to get online. The big difference, of course, is that AOL's users were paying customers. In the case of Facebook, which we don't even pay to use, we aren't the customers at all.

Let's start with the changes themselves. Until now, the main thing that showed up on users' pages was a big list of "updates" from all the friends and companies and groups to which they were connected. It was a giant chronological list that made no distinction between an article (like this one) that may have been recommended by a hundred friends and the news that one person just changed his relationship status or had a funny dream.

Facebook has now prioritized that flow of stories into a news feed that puts "top stories" on top, and the more chronological list of everything down below. Top stories are selected by an algorithm of some sort that "knows" what will be important to the user based on past behavior and numbers of connections to those recommending the story, and so on.

Meanwhile, as if to make up for this violation of the what-just-happened-is-the-only-thing-that-matters ethos of the social net, Facebook added a live, Twitter-like stream of everything everyone else is doing or saying. It runs down the right side of the screen, almost like CNN TV's awfully distracting and wisely retired "news crawl."

On an Internet where everyone and everything are becoming "friended" to one another, such a division of the relevant "solid" bits from the topic stream of data points makes sense. After all, updates from your closest friends and favorite bloggers should take priority over those from some relative stranger you "friended" because he said he was in your fifth grade class and you didn't want to insult him. If everyone ends up connected to everyone, Facebook will have to make some distinctions or the service will be useless.

But users are bothered by all this. On the simplest level, they don't like change, particularly when it results in making their free time more complex and stressful. Facebook was always a lazy person's friend and time waster. Turning into a dashboard designed to increase productivity and relevancy turns it more into, well, work.

Of course, if they stopped and thought about it, they would realize that Facebook is work. We are not Facebook's customers at all. The boardroom discussions at Facebook are not about how to help little Johnny make more and better friendships online; they are about how Facebook can monetize Johnny's "social graph" -- the accumulated data about how Johnny makes friends, shares links and makes consumer decisions. Facebook's real customers are the companies who actually pay them for this data, and for access to our eyeballs in the form of advertisements. The hours Facebook users put into their profiles and lists and updates is the labor that Facebook then sells to the market researchers and advertisers it serves.

Deep down, most users sense this, which is why every time Facebook makes a change they are awakened from the net trance for long enough to be reminded of what is really going on. They see that their "news feeds" are going to be prioritized by an algorithm they will never understand. They begin to suspect that Facebook is about to become more useful to the companies who want to keep "important" stories from getting lost in the churn -- and less useful for the humans.

Ultimately, they don't trust Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and are suspicious of his every move. By contrast, Apple founder Steve Jobs took away his customers' hard drives, Flash movies, keyboards and Firewire ports -- and yet consumers put up with the inconvenience and discomfort every step of the way because they believed that Steve knew best, and trusted that he was taking them somewhere better.

Apple users pay handsomely for the privilege of putting themselves in the company's hands. Facebook does not enjoy this same level of trust with its nonpaying subscribers.

That's because on Facebook we're not the customers. We are the product.

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Reader Comments (9)

The growing ubiquity of Facebook has been fascinating to rise, but I predict (or, perhaps, hope desperately for) a paradigm shift in users' attitudes towards what is essentially, as you say, a brilliant, dynamic, marketing tool. It seems to be an entity that may be becoming "too big to prevail." As you state: "If everyone ends up connected to everyone, Facebook will have to make some distinctions or the service will be useless." A valuable insight. Thanks.

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterd.walter

After not opening Facebook for some time, I noticed drastic changes in its user interface that I found unappealing. The changes were just overwhelming.

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHalley | Pocket Folders

This post remind me of what is, I think, one of the difference between Google and all of the other "free service" providers: Although the users are always the product, Google concentrates on keeping the users happy, because they know that without users, they have no customers. Facebook (and other free service providers on the internet) often focus on driving up profits - which basically amounts to "get more ads in front of users" - rather then keeping users on their service rather than transferring to another service. Social networking sites are little different than, say, e-mail or search engines, because social networking sites rely on having a "critical mass" of users. I'm not sure that Google+ is going to be any better of a social networking site than any of it's predecessors, but I suspect that changes there will be welcomed with open arms (since they are likely to make it easier to do the things people want to do) rather than decried as ruining the site.

What I don't understand is why no one other than Google seems to have seen that more users equals the ability to charge higher prices. This seems like a no-brainer to me. Maybe it's the short-term profit so inherent in our capitalist system?

(On a side note: I don't trust Jobs and his buddies at Apple any more than I trust Zuckerburg and his buddies. They both aim to entrap their users in the ecosystem created/provided by their products. No thanks, gentlemen, I'm perfectly fine using open source software, open standards, and having hardware with removable, replaceable batteries.)

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Great post. Yes, we are the product. And it is eerily reminiscent of the old Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man" we are the product and we are on the menu. LOL.

September 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames Holloway

Time to join something like http://diasporafoundation.org/ instead?

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfjas

We are the product, indeed.

I think we've always been the raw material fed to advertisers, whether it was through TV or print or radio.

We are served to 'them' just as we 'consume' what they're hawking.

Our attention is the traded good.

Eyeballs!

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTrish

Yes, we all get mad when the format changes as it seems to so often. And hopefully we all realize by now that wherever we roam on fb we will be tracked. There is tracking software to upload for anyone who wants it. But it seems to me that we can collectively turn it around to benefit us. Sure, we get the sleepy posts, about what they just had to eat. . . so what? Compare it to what we had before; media all owned by the Carlisle Group who apparently own the world. There is a way we can all get together and use it to enhance our spirits, our way of life. Did you ever look so hard for something, only to turn around and see it's been in front of you the whole time you were slowly going insane looking for it? Just had to lift that thin piece of paper. They are using us, sure, they are making money on us but there is communication there for us to be together in mind and thought and purpose. If we need to. And we do.

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersprklita
Would really appreciate it if Facebook stopped changing every other month, makes it tough to keep up with and actually use.
http://ceefitness.com
September 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike
Agree with the above ^^. Could do without the ads also.
http://everything-computers.com
October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohnathan

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