My beef with Facebook: so much untapped possibility


I started using Facebook years ago, back when I was a regular person. I was in early. Everyone was launching a college-friends-based social network. Friendster was becoming unusably slow. Others like yub.com entered to fill a void as well. I got a desperate plea from a schoolmate. Something like "Hey please try out this Facebook thing my friend made." Back then it was just for Harvard cats, and it was THEfacebook.com. I remembered the paper facebook we got every year for our dorms and this unauthorized electronic version was obviously a good idea.

Years later, Facebook is a whole nother beast. Now I'm not just a person but a growing presence (I hope!) through my comedy, writing and political activities. I have almost 900 Facebook friends attached to my profile. All the web traffic I used to get from MySpace has moved over. My personal use of Facebook has become professional. They wanted this. They wanted to beat MySpace, and from my perspective, they have in many ways. Most notably, their site does not crash my computer. That is high on my list of must-haves from a social network or a website or a friend.

But, like all things worth using, there are some big problems. Here they are, my beefs with Facebook. (note, several others have blogged about Facebook-ness including Robert Scoble, Anne Zelenka, and too many others to count).

Regular People vs. Public Figures - The Problem
For students, Facebook is still great. For most other regular people, it probably gets the job done, but for those of us using Facebook to create or augment our presence, Facebook is lacking. If you are a singer, writer, comedian, politician or other such public figure, you are forced to navigate some choppy waters. That's because Facebook defaults to a "personal" use.

Where MySpace still wins is in designating an account type. MySpace has "comedian" and "musician" accounts which provide tools and an interface specific to those types of people. MySpace does not treat everyone like a college student. Facebook needs to take a lesson here and consider special account types for more public people.

What I'd like to see

  • Fix the distinction between what's available to profiles and groups. I've created a group on Facebook for fans. I post select photos and videos, news updates and gigs there, but I cannot install apps to my group.

  • I'd love to put a SplashCast player in my group or a blip.tv channel of my podcasts.

  • My profile has the wall, but so does my fan group along with a bulletin board. So messages are spread all over my Facebook experience


Contact-- I'm Sorry, FRIEND Management - The Problem
Facebook has the right idea in letting you categorize "how you know" your friends, but it does a poor job of making this flexible and usable. Vanessa Fox talks about this in some ways. For example, instead of relegating everything to the "Other" category, I'd like to set a category of friends as "SXSW" for people I met at South by Southwest. Now, I have to select "Other" and type it in each time. More importantly, Facebook needs to unlock this metadata I'm putting in and let me make use of it.

My rule: I have done you the favor of categorizing my friends with valuable metadata. You use this info to target ads. Please do me the courtesy of allowing me to act on that same information

What I'd like to see

  • allow me to create custom groups and give me the choice of these groups when I add a friend. For me, I'd choose groups based on conferences/events and real world friends vs fans. Example groups: high school friends, track team, SXSW black bloggers, comedians, BookExpo crew, Iowa State gig, people denied habeas corpus by the Bush administration, etc.

  • allow me to use the information about my friends. Most important is for me to message them all at once whether based on their user info (like geography) or my user tagging mentioned above. For example, I'd like to send a note to all SXSW friends in advance of the festival next year to see who is returning.

  • Highly relevant to me, I'd like to send out performance announcements to people in a particular city. Right now, there is no group messaging capability short of creating a Facebook group for every subsegment. When I announce a show using my fan group (the only way to send bulk messages) I have to send it to everyone. A show in New York reaches people in Hong Kong. It's a waste. You know what I do today? I open two Facebook windows: one to write the message and another where I search for friends in the city of interest. Then I manually type in addresses up to the 20-recipient limit, and I do this until I'm finished. This is so weak. This may have something to do with preventing SPAM, but I would pay for a workaround.

  • I would also like to do interesting mashups and cross-tabs on my contacts. I'm a data analysis junkie. It's what years of consulting has done to me. What apps are popular among my SXSW friends? What books are my high school friends reading? You have the data, Facebook. Let me at it!


Messaging - The Problem
MySpace set a new low bar for messaging, undoing basic features inherent in email with their supposedly more advanced social networking tools. I challenge anyone reading this to send a message to a MySpace friend who is not in your Top Friends and who is not in your message inbox or sent mail. You cannot do it, and do you know why? Because MySpace user search has been broken for years.

While MySpace cut fancy shmancy content deals with TV networks, they overlooked one of the major requirements of a social networking tool: social networking, that is communication. I have searched for MySpace friends who are in my Top 8, and MySpace says they are not found. The only reliable way to find people on MySpace is to know their email address. If I had that, trust me, I would not be sending them a message through MySpace. MySpace has been a necessary evil which, thankfully, is becoming less necessary.

Ok, so that's a big MySpace rant, but it's relevant to Facebook. Facebook has solved a lot of the super dumb MySpace failings. I can start a message to a friend, and Facebook auto-completes. I can search for friends by name and, get this, actually find them.

What I'd like to see

  • save messages into folders

  • search my messages

  • send messages groups of people, defined by "how do I know this person" or geography or whatever

  • flag messages for followup

  • block receipt of messages by certain people

  • basically, facebook needs a gmail-like email client built in, not this cheap "messaging" crap. That's great for Red Bull-infused college kids with no real responsibilities, but in the real world, I need to keep track of my messages and actually follow up with people


Applications - The Problem
The Facebook apps explosion has been talked about in many places. The apps have definitely made Facebook a more interesting place, but app notification is becoming spam-like. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten the notification "8 of your friends have added the Deez Nutz application" only to be followed 24 hours later by "200 of your friends have removed the Deez Nutz application." A day later, I get another notice, "John Smith would like you to Suck on Deez Nutz. Click here to install the Deez Nutz application."

What I'd like to see

  • a an apps dashboard which ranks apps by the total number of users and the total number of my friends using it

  • a way to view apps by type. There are several apps that do exactly the same thing. Bundle them so I can compare more easily

  • app ratings should be built right into the platform

  • I want to screen app notifications based on ratings and the app type. I could tell Facebook not to notify me of any game apps with a rating less than 3 of 4 stars. This would cut back on a lot of the crap out there. MS Windows is a platform that I use on a regular basis, but I don't get notified every time a developer launches a new windows application or every time my friends install a new version of Word.

  • There should be a category for "Stupid" apps as well so I can block those. If I get another Zombie "bite" I'm going to have to dig up a dead person, inject them with the Rage virus, and set them loose on the developers of Facebook.


Networks - The Problem
In this era of mobile workers, unreasonably cheap airfare and globalization, Facebook is stuck with the quaint notion that people want to identify with one geographic network. How 1991 of them. I spend significant amounts of time in several cities, especially New York and Boston. Don't make me choose.

What I'd like to see

  • allow me to join multiple geographic networks.

  • consider a "primary" network with multiple secondary networks


Stats - The Problem
There are none. Again, when you assume that your users are regular people, citizens, it's safe to say they probably care a little bit less how many times their video was played, but I'm in the content distribution business. I want to know if YouTube or Facebook are more effective at spreading video love.

What I'd like to see

  • total photo views, video play counts and profile views

  • especially for video, a way to see where the viewers came from: my profile page, a pass-along, a friend's profile page

  • just give me something like "Facebook Analytics" and call it a day


Conclusion
This is a much longer post than I ever wanted. I write because I care. These social networks are an attempt to mechanize and digitize what we do on a day to day basis, interact with other people. For someone in my position, using these tools is also an extension of how I produce and share my work. For something like Facebook to be effective, it needs not only to open up to third party developers (as it has), but open up to its users as well.

Ultimately, I'm asking them to unlock the capabilities they already offer to advertisers and developers. Share those with users like me, and I'll push it through to my 900 friends and make Facebook even more important in my life. I should also make clear, that I don't expect all of this for free. I'm a fan of paying for quality services, and if Facebook offered a "Facebook Pro" version, which did a lot of what I'm asking, I'd be the first to sign up.

I would love to hear how you'd like to see Facebook improved or if you've found found ways to solve the problems I identified above. I have a habit of running into the right people and asking them good questions, and I might just bump into someone who can get some of this done.

Update (15 August 2007). Here's a perfect example of Facebook's misplaced priorities with respect to applications. I installed an application developed by Slide.com called "My Questions." It's a decent idea, allowing you to post questions to your friends and solicit responses. The problem is that when you add the application, it sends ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS one of its default questions.

In my case, it asked 900 of my friends "Would you rather party in Las Vegas or South Beach (Miami)?" Like I give a flying abstinence education seminar!

This is just what I was talking about above. Facebook has given this developer the ability to message ALL of my friends, yet I cannot. I am using the My Questions app one last time to tell my friends to remove it and not support such crappyness

I just wrote the following to Jeremiah Robison, listed as the developer of the My Questions app. Feel free to reuse it.
Jeremiah,

I have over 900 facebook friends, and I'm telling them to avoid your application and all Slide.com apps due to the massively irresponsible way in which you built the program.

My Questions spammed my friends with a question about "Las Vegas vs. South Beach." I was not asked if I wanted to send this question. I only knew because I started getting responses back. If you do provide an opt-out, it is horribly unclear.

In addition, your program emails me on my personal email account anytime someone asks or answers a question. I can find no way to change this setting.

I am severely disappointed in your implementation of this app and will do all in my power to prevent my friends from using it.

I am looking for three things from your company.

1) an apology for the irresponsible manner in which you built the app and the valuable time you have wasted in people's lives

2) a revision of your app to prevent such massive spamming, and yes, it is spamming since I did not authorize it in a clear way

3) better controls on how the application notifies users, specifically a CLEAR way to opt out of emails.