Aaron Shapiro.

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Facebook Fatigue

Originally published in Mediapost, July 19, 2010

People are leaving Facebook. Inside Facebook recently reported reputable statistics demonstrating a decline in the number of 18- to 44-year-old active users in the U.S. in June -- particularly 26 to 34 year olds. And they don't think it's a hiccup. "In the years we've been tracking the demographic data, we've rarely seen a dip like this, so we would tend to favor the idea of a root cause." One reason for the behavior change: privacy. The blog explained, "The age groups that logged a loss in June is also the one most likely to have paid attention to the privacy debates."

In mid-May, amNew York, a nearly ubiquitous free paper on the NYC commuter circuit, was headlined " Unfriending Facebook." One of the most-emailed stories in The New York Times was about an up-and-coming Facebook alternative. These are just two of the thousands written on the subject. Then came a rash of stories about whether the privacy upheaval actually inspired anyone to close their accounts. Privacy may be the most sellable and sensational anti-Facebook rally call -- especially given the CEO Mark Zuckerberg's epithet for people who trust him -- but I doubt it's the primary reason people are leaving Facebook.

The truth is, Facebook isn't fun to use anymore. It's become a chore, just one more place that busy people have to log in to stay up-to-date. And Facebook is making the goal of staying up-to-date harder and harder to achieve. There are so many apps like Farmville producing status updates as well as people using Facebook as their repository for passing thoughts and private/public conversations, I have to sort through tons of what I don't want to read before I get to something I want or need to know.

One commenter from Inside Facebook echoes my sentiment. Rodney Payne, a founder of Think! Social Media, wrote, "Personally, the newsfeeds I'm seeing are becoming less and less relevant. The changes made back in December 09 to reduce spammy applications have seem to have given way to spammy Fan Pages."

The original value of Facebook was this: an easy, aggregated way to stay connected with friends. What made so many people want to join was the chance to look at other people's photos and keep up with their major life events like birthdays. Today, with so much spam, it's not an effective tool for its original use case.

Here's the default view of my "Most Recent" news feed...

My top two stories: Two people became friends with other people. Next, someone is sharing an article with me from The New York Times. The next two are more people who became friends with other people. Four of the first five updates are information I don't need or want to know. Then there's a short status update from someone mentioning something mundane in their daily life. Next, someone's participating in a live chat. Then I see that one friend is sending a message to another friend saying, "I like your new haircut." Next, someone is now friends with four other people. The next one is a promo for a party where they're giving out free drinks. The next one is a status update about the weather. Then I see that someone likes two other people's posts. And someone likes a band. And someone posted an iPhone-taken photo of the Empire State Building. This will only get worse if the "Like" button becomes more pervasive and also updates my feed. Thank god none of my friends use "Mafia Wars" -- I really don't want updates about the latest mob hits.

Why would anyone ever log in to this? There's a barrage of stuff that's not that relevant or interesting, and yet totally distracting -- and it's pushing any want-to-know and need-to-know information down and off the page.

You could be thinking that the solution to my problem is "Top News." But no. Facebook hasn't yet figured out what I consider to be my top news. Instead of presenting me with user-friendly and effective filtering options, Facebook is asking me to hunt for the needle in the haystack -- in short, turning me into the search engine that they're lacking. With Google's left side bar that helps filter search results and Bing being billed as the "decision" engine, it's striking that most of the innovation in and around Facebook focuses on putting more and more into my already cluttered feed.

User research shows that people are going back to email to keep up with friends because of the spam. People want the experience Facebook used to provide but no longer does -- a pure, simple way of keeping up with friends.

As Facebook moves further away from its original use-case as a pure, simple way to connect with friends, it will be more and more vulnerable to Facebook alternatives like Formspring.me, Collegiate Nation and Diaspora -- which, by the way, has attracted mega micro-investment attention.