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Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie

By - October 27, 2011

I recently joined Facebook. Have you heard of it?

I know, I know, that sounds crazy, given that I’m “an Internet guy.”  If you search for me on Google, say “John Battelle Facebook,” you see that I am already there, and that I have nearly 5000 “friends.” (The interplay between Google search and Facebook is worthy of an entire treatise, I’ll leave that for later). You’ll see I also have a fan page, which has about 5400 “fans” – I think that’s the terminology, though now I think Facebook has turned those fans to “Likes.”

But as many of you know from reading my past posts on the subject, I’ve been essentially “Facebook bankrupt” for years. The service has never been of much value to me, in the main because I made an early and fatal decision to accept any and all folks who asked to be my friend. (For details on that, see this post: I Blew It On Facebook.)

So this week, as both research for my next book and because I’ve been meaning to do it for more than two years, I re-joined Facebook under a slightly different name. I created a new account from scratch, and I promised myself I’d really curate this one so that it’d be meaningful to me personally.

It’s not turning out to be easy.

I’m sure this process will yield more posts, so consider this the first chapter. What I’ve experienced so far, however, only strengthens my belief that Facebook hasn’t even crawled out of the sea when it comes to understanding the nuances of how people communicate with each other. Sure, it’s an extraordinary service and platform, etc. etc. And I know and respect a ton of people who work there. But it’s a testament to how utterly thirsty we are to connect that Facebook, in five short years, has captured the attention of nearly everyone in the online world.

Because, let’s face it. The initial experience with Facebook is pretty bad, from a social point of view.

Here’s why I feel that way.

First is what I’ll call The Guilt of Not Connecting. When you sign up for the first time, Facebook bludgeons you relentlessly to connect to others. It’s beyond irritating – a newcomer to the system (like me) gets constant reminders to find friends before you even get a page going. And once you do, it continues, like an irritating beep in the background – all over your page. “People you may know” stare out at you on the right side of my page, forlorn, as if to ask “How could you NOT want to be my friend?!” Large ads at the top of my page, replete with beckoning profile pics, ask “Are They Your Friends Too?”

And you know what? These are certainly people I know. But being forced to chose if you care enough about them to add them as friends is an intrusion at this early point. I’m just figuring this thing out, Facebook. There’s gotta be more to it than just adding friends, right? Right?!

The second thing I’ve noticed that feels broken is The Forced Rudeness. When I set up my page, I did add a few friends – mostly family members. I added my wife, my kids (the ones who are on the service), and my Dad, who recently joined. Come to think of it, I think I started this whole process because my Dad joined and tried to “friend” my old account, the bankrupt one. I knew if I accepted his request, his voice would be lost in the cacophony that was my old identity.

I also searched for a few folks who came to mind – really close and true pals of mine. All in all, I think I sent out about ten “friend requests” under my new name (which is pretty much the same as my old name, I just added my middle initial). I’m pleased to report that everyone accepted my request pretty much on day one, which I kind of expected (I would have grounded my daughter if she refused, after all). But as soon as the first few folks added me as a friend, the Facebook friend machine went into overdrive, and all of a sudden, I began to get new friend requests. From people I know. But…not that well.

And here’s where Facebook utterly falls down. Because while I do know these people, and I even like them, I may not want to connect with them right now. I have my reasons as to why, and I’d sure like to explain myself to these folks.

But Facebook doesn’t really enable me to do this. In the email notification, I can’t even say no. It’s either “Confirm” or “See All Requests”, which forces me back to Facebook to manage my next steps. Since I don’t want to connect, I pick the second choice. On the site, I am given the choice of either accepting, or pushing a button that says “not now” or somesuch. I have *no idea* what that rejected friend on the other end of this transaction is told once I hit “not now.” And that’s a big problem – is the person notified that I’ve said no? How? If not, I’d like to know that – and ideally, before I see them in real life. These kind of nuanced signals are pretty much table stakes in a “real” relationship. But on Facebook, you get black or white. And that’s just not good enough.

Unlike with a real email request from a real person (not the service), or a phone call, or a face to face conversation,  there’s no simple way to respond to the friend request with a short note like “Hi (name) – Thanks for reaching out to connect with me. I’m restarting a new Facebook account, and for now, I’m limiting it to family and a very small group of really close pals. As I figure out how to navigate the service, I’ll be sure to add you. For now, I want to make sure I don’t overshare!”

Now, my messaging would change depending on the recipient. That one above might be for a business colleague who found me through my close friendship with someone who also happens to be in my industry. But I’d modify my message for the mother of my son’s high school pal. This is a person I see at school functions from time to time but who, to be utterly honest, isn’t someone with whom I’d otherwise spend much time (or share personal experiences with via an online platform). I’d wager she feels the same way about me (but I don’t know! It’d be nice if Facebook allowed her to explain why she’s friending me, but … it doesn’t!) We like each other, we’re cordial when we see each other, but why is Facebook forcing me to be rude to her by telling her “not now” (if, in fact, she’s even told – which I don’t know!).

This is going to make for a pretty awkward soccer party next month, I can tell you that.

Because, really, that’s what it feels like should I decide not to accept her request. It’s rude. So I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that Facebook seems to be counting on this fact to drive connections. And you know what? That’s a house of cards. It insures a lack of truly honest social instrumentation when it comes to building your “social graph,” and down the line, I’m going to predict that will come back to haunt Facebook, if it hasn’t already.

Now, I know many of you are snickering at this post, because most of these issues have been raised and settled, so to speak, over the past few years. Heck, I’ve even made similar points on this site from time to time. But through the fresh eyes of my recent experience, I sense something far deeper is at work. Most folks only take one run at crafting their digital identity on Facebook. I’d reckon most of us don’t want to spend hours going back to rejigger our “graph” once it’s created. That’d be way too much work.

But that graph is based on a extremely rudimentary set of social rules that break down over time, and will fail to reflect our true selves as we extend our identity online. And as Facebook moves to leverage that identity through the Open Graph to nearly every action we take online, I can’t help but think the brittleness of this system will be exposed. It then becomes a race – between Facebook’s ability to reverse engineer more nuanced social interaction back into its platform (and it is, I can see attempts in the interface already), and some new startup (or, OK, maybe Google) that allows us to do the same with far less work.

Of course, Facebook has what amounts to a “moat” around social platforms due to its network effects – as Sean Parker pointed out in our conversation at Web 2 last week. It’s really hard to leave, because you want to bring your “real friends” with you, and asking them to step over to a new service is too much of an imposition. If they leave, they will want to bring their friends, and now you have a real shampoo problem on your hands.

But I predict that we’re racing headlong into a cultural moment when we realize we need more control and nuance in our lives when it comes to what Facebook currently represents for us (if you think this isn’t related to #occupywallstreet, it is, in a really interesting way. That post is coming). Facebook works really well for folks who are just beginning to define who they are in the world, like my kids, or college kids just learning what it means to be out on their own. But those kids ultimately grow up, and become deeply refined social creatures. The question is, can Facebook?

I’m not sure. The DNA and core driving principles of the company have been set. The entire system seems driven by the maxim “only connect.” I wonder how our culture will interpret the first word of that phrase, and whether Facebook, as it’s set up today, has the capacity to redefine it.

There’s so much more to say, but I’m pushing two thousand words. Best to press “publish,” and hear from you.

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28 thoughts on “Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie

  1. Bob says:

    John, Great article. I think your issue is more common than people admit. I hesitate to post a cool social media marketing article I just read into facebook when it will be seen in the same news stream below a new trick my high school friends dog just learned (that lots of people do “like”). the social world is more complicated than this.

  2. Martin Tassara says:

    With the new interface of “Top Stories” they are working on the signal to noise issue. They are also giving the option of how to share each new post… This things weren’t there not so long ago.
    However I believe they still have time to correct this. There isn’t yet an alternative where you can go.
    As you said in #w2s your close friends are not picking up the phone in G+. But time might start running out

  3. Simon says:

    Great article…Facebook in the early years was ‘spamming ‘ us with emails about every activity e.g friend requests, posting, games etc..Nowadays its more ‘quiet’ and ussr friendly… Last year i nearly quit facebook.. i was so fed up..

  4. Assaf says:

    Great article, John. I have an account but dont *use* FB for many of the reasons you enumerate

  5. Michael says:

    Facebook would have you believe that with the population about to surpass 7B, there are 800M of us who feel the need to connect to MORE and MORE people everyday! Given how crowded the world is getting the logical shift should inevitably be to simplify our lives, to have less connections but with more substance – FB has peaked and the acceleration down will be more swift than it’s rise. I give it less than 5 years before our attention has shifted dramatically in another direction….

  6. Eric says:

    I agree with you 100%. My wife doesn’t. When Google+ was coming out and I mentioned the feature of “Circles” to her. How it will successfully compete with Facebook for the very reasons you point out in this post. She immediately looked at me, without hesitating, and told me I just didn’t get it. She LOVES serendipitously exploring stranger’s pages and photos. It’s fun for her. Sports for females. Look no further than the female section of the magazine rack circa 1995. Publishers printed money by releasing 1,200-Page tombs every month.

    Facebook isn’t for old curmudgeons (like me). Facebook isn’t trying to appeal to the fossilized social conventions of yore. They are creating new ones.

    BTW–there is a Social Network for old curmudgeons–It’s called LinkedIn.

    • Anonymous says:

      Maybe I should update my profile photo to the guys in the peanut gallery from the Muppets.

    • Laura Glu says:

      Not all females, but thanks for generalizing.

    • Moushumi Kabir says:

      I think that’s a sexist remark, “female”. Not an entire population of gender, female, may be generalized based on the opinion of one female, your wife in this case….it has no base and is a very narrow outlook. Men, especially in social media space, needs to stop generalizing female based on their wives’/daughters’/girlfriends’ opinion.

      Not this woman either….most annoying platform ever created – Facebook.

  7. Elissa says:

    Great post John… The other “funny” story related to your bankrupt account is when I friended a guy who asked me to be my friend. I friended him because he was your friend and I figured a friend of yours was a friend of mine… until he started posting terrible photos and sexist comments! I de-friended him and you pointed out that you accepted everyone as a friend!

    My strict rule after that encounter was to only friend people who I actually know. But I know a lot of people and because of that there is nothing nuanced about my FB relationship. Ultimately because of this I am now only an observer and rarely post or interact in the FB world. It has only become my place to talk about work: “check out this very interesting wine video” – but not anything personal that I would share more intimately with close friends.

    • Anonymous says:

      That’s a good point, Elissa. That my dumb move of allowing people I don’t know be my “friends” has ripple effects across my “graph” – making me look bad and you upset! Thanks for the story.

  8. Keith woolcock says:

    According to some widely cited research by Prof Robin Dunbar (Oxford), the human brain can accommodate about 150 different people. That is the ideal number for a human community. Facebook industrialises our need for connection and so devalues it. Anything that is automated becomes devalued – just look at financial modelling. Crap in crap out – we can produce huge amounts of data but it doesn’t mean it has value as knowledge. I think you are therefore right – we need finer grained connections, not this grape shot – Wal-Mart style mass product that FB imposes upon us. FB encourages us to become hare brained. Where FB is useful is as an authentication tool, or passport. This is where it has utility.

  9. Michael says:

    …and the shift begins…. :)

  10. Joseph Smarr says:

    John-extremely thoughtful and perceptive post. You’ve experienced and captured many of the subtle-but-crucial intuitions that led us to design circles the way we did as the primary form of connections in Google+.

    Lots of people feel exactly the same way you do, but most haven’t conceptualized it as such. Yet if you probe a bit, they all say the same thing–facebook’s symmetric friend model causes “social awkwardness” of several varieties and generally leads to “over friending” and then “under sharing” of more meaningful content. Their recent UI changes have made things a little better, but like you I suspect many/most people have already “dug themselves into a hole” that is hard if not impossible to dig themselves out of (without starting over completely, as you did, but which obviously most people can’t or won’t). Ironically, while clearly it’s a lot of work to “start over” on Google+, a surprising number of users are happy/relieved to be able to do it for exactly the reasons you mention above.

    Who knows how things will play out, and lord knows both G+ and Facebook could do a lot more to reflect and respect the richness and nuance of real-world relationships, but you’re absolutely right that there’s something deep and important here, and I hope you’ll keep thinking and writing about it!

  11. [...] Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie | John Battelle’s Search Blog – really interesting post on the Facebook experience [...]

  12. famebook says:

    I think trust has always been and will increasingly be the binding factor in whether Facebook fails or prevails in the long term. Right now, I suggest the majority of people don’t trust it (like they don’t trust bankers or profit centric corporations) and that’s the main rub. Theoretically you should have been able to isolate your close friends and family into one place within your profile and use the wider net to keep brand JB in the mind’s eye of those that care. (Hand up) Now I know you don’t and Facebook has made that your fault agreed, but not through its’ intent, rather the latent trust time bomb it has built around it.

    Personally I think the trust issue is bigger than ever people could imagine. I’d love to be able to search without feeling like I am being defined and creating a potential case against me in some future set of circumstances and I’d like to be able to socialize and consume content without feeling like I am in a walled garden and that content may start to be politically manipulated.

    It’s not just Facebook that has a problem, it’s good old Uncle Sam. If the technological and capitalist success is truly founded in altruism (or at least when people were part of the solution and not part of the problem) then it has overlooked the most important asset it once had. That which I, everyone in Wall Street and billions around the world apparently being liberated value more than anything in an uncertain future. TRUST

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  14. John, great post and very accurate I think. I particularly like the notion of wondering whether or not the “DNA and core driving principles of the company have been set.” I would argue they haven’t been. Last year I wrote two blog posts that you might find related to the discussion.

    http://seldomtypql.com/319/jerrymaguiresocialmediamoment

    http://seldomtypql.com/137/137

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  18. [...] Only Connect: Facebook, From The Eyes of an Old Newbie Highly read piece on my re-entry to Facebook. I should write a followup on my experience so far. [...]