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FaceTwitter Sucks: A Better Vision for the Social Networking Future

Posted: 03/24/09 01:28 PM ET

Nobody loves Facebook more than me. I'm a rabid, evangelical Facebook addict. My page is so elaborate that a colleague once compared it to staring into the Matrix. I'm also that annoying guy who taunts my friends who still haven't joined. When they finally give in - and they always do - I'm the first to post on their wall: "Welcome to Facebook! You now actually exist!"

Whenever Facebook tweaks its layout I usually respond to inevitable uproar by dismissing the complaints as coming from whiners who can't embrace change, but now that Facebook's latest incarnation has had a chance to sink in it's clear the overwhelming majority disapprove. (An EW poll shows 92% "hate" it.) Some people are spewing more vitriol at the new Facebook than they are at the executives at AIG.

I hate to say it, but I agree with them this time. The new layout does suck.

Still, I'm not about to give up on Facebook. Social networking is here to stay and part of what makes Facebook work is that it puts everybody on one site. To jump ship now will slow our progress. Like our nation, Facebook is an imperfect entity but we should strive to make it better so that we can reap the rewards of a more ideal social networking future.

I'm no techie or computer nerd, but here's what I think happened and here's my vision of what Facebook could be.

We can psychoanalyze CEO Mark Zuckerberg all we want, but it's obvious the new design is his direct reaction to Twitter. I agree with those who question why Facebook, which has 175 million users, would feel threatened by Twitter, which has 6 million. Changing your entire layout as a pre-emptive strike on a far less useful flavor-of-the-month competitor seems irrational, no matter how many silly celebrities like to "Tweet." In trying to be more like Twitter, Zuckerberg risks losing what made Facebook work in the first place.

Status updates are one of my least favorite parts of Facebook, but the new design (focused on real-time, Twitter-like status updates) puts them right up in your grill whenever you sign on. Sure, going "real-time" instead of using algorithms for a more focused, less-frequently-updated newsfeed is a great scheme, making addicts like me feel the need to sign on even more than we did before - but who the hell cares that some dude you barely know is enjoying his soba noodle lunch, or that your cousin's hamster escaped yesterday?

It's nice that you can now easily hide all updates from the people you don't care about, but that's too black-and-white of a solution. What if tomorrow that same soba guy sends out an invitation to a screening of a cool independent film that his company made? Or, what if your cousin posts pictures of a family party in St. Louis that you want to look at? Sorry! You hid all of their updates! You're screwed.

Instead, you should be able to choose what kind of updates you want to see and what kind you don't. Quizzes, for example. ("So and so answered the quiz: What city should I live in?") I despise these asinine wastes of time and now all of the sudden everybody's quiz is foisted upon me 24/7 and I can't block them. Like "gifts" and "pokes," I'd be thrilled if I never had to see someone's stupid quiz result on my feed for the rest of my life.

What do I want to see?

In my mind Facebook should be a living, breathing "word of mouth machine."

I want to know which movies, bands, books, websites, articles, and videos my friends have just discovered and want to share. I want to know when a creative friend has an art gallery opening for her paintings, or is launching a new bar or restaurant, or is going to be in New York for the weekend. I want to know about the hotel my friend recommends for a Spring getaway, or about the amazing hiking trail someone discovered on a recent trip to Wyoming.

Facebook already does some of this through status updates - kind of - but also through other means. One of the things that blasted Facebook above and beyond MySpace was the wise decision to open itself up to outside people and companies to invent applications that expand its usefulness.

Some examples:

The iLike application allows you to create a list of your favorite bands - not just so you can show them off on your profile - but so that they can send you updates when those bands announce shows in your area. If you decide to buy tickets you can opt to add that to your newsfeed so that friends can see you're going. It's a great way for bands to promote themselves virally, but it also helps consumers find out about new music and events in an organic way - through their friends.

There's also a number of similar applications for people to share their favorite books, including the one I use, Visual Bookshelf from LivingSocial. In such a horrible time for the publishing industry, particularly for young writers, what better way for people to learn about new books than to see which ones their friends are enjoying at the moment?

Finally, there's my favorite application: Dopplr. It allows you to input where you're going to be traveling on a given day and it automatically updates your feed to let people know where you're going to be. If you travel a lot for business (or pleasure) friends can easily be alerted if you're going to be in town. This can lead to opportunities for unexpected interaction in the real world. You might be in Miami Beach the same weekend as a friend you haven't seen in a long time and you'd never know it if not for Facebook.

And that's what Facebook should be about: making your *real* life more dynamic and interesting... so that maybe you'll have a better status updates than "I'm at home by myself watching Rock of Love Bus and eating chocolate balls."

But for the last two redesigns, Facebook has shoved these applications into the Siberia of the site, hiding them deep within your profile in the "Boxes" section that almost nobody bothers to visit. Now when we hear about the "applications" business booming it's on the iPhone, not Facebook, and that's a big mistake.

If the Facebook team was smart, they'd find a way to make these applications more central to the Facebook experience. They could even buy or steal the better application ideas and incorporate them right into the main framework of the site.

There should be a quick, easy, visually interesting way to give a thumbs up to a movie or restaurant, to recommend electricians and plumbers to your neighbors, or snorkeling companies to people who want to travel to the places you've been.

The possibilities are endless, but we're not going to get there with Twitter-like status updates dominating the site. As a friend of mine just posted in his status update yesterday: "FaceTwitter sucks!"