Facebook e-mail: Someone did something but we're not telling you who it is or what they did

That headline is an exaggeration. But if you're a FaceBook user, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

That headline is an exaggeration. But if you're a FaceBook user, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

A couple of months ago (not sure exactly when), I wrote about how the number of invitations I was receiving through LinkedIn far exceeded the number of invites I was getting from FaceBook. That trend has since reversed itself. It seems as though not an hour goes by now without some sort of Facebook notification showing up in my inbox. Every one of them however leaves me wondering why everyone is so fascinated with the social networking site. I mean, c'mon, let's be honest; the Facebook social process is encapsulated in what has to be of the worst user experiences I've ever encountered. Maybe it's a matter of taste. But, if the goal of a social networking business is to be viral, FaceBook seems almost anti-viral. In fact, for a social network, I find it to be downright anti-social.

For example, when some invites me to join their Linked In network, the e-mail I receive appears to come from that person. Their name is in the sender's line and the return address is invitations@linkedin.com. This by itself is anti-social. As long as most e-mail systems aren't rejecting mail with spoofed "from" addresses (and LinkedIn.com's reputation is good enough that it would get a hall pass anyway), why shouldn't the return address be the actual address of the sender. For example, if Jason, who I like, but haven't heard from in years reaches out to me via e-mail with an invitation to join his LinkedIn network, of course I'm going to join. But the idea that I have to go back through LinkedIn to finish forging the connection and then use LinkedIn's messaging architecture to write something like "Great to hear from you" back to Jason seems pretty anti-social to me. What is LinkedIn protecting here after all? A couple of page views at most. It's not worth it.

Quite frankly though, as bad as LinkedIn handles this sort of "friending," (the new verb du jour), it's the hostess with the mostest compared to FaceBook. For starters, the invitations appear to come from FaceBook (not from the person who's issuing the invitation). Next, FaceBook invitations are very spartan. They could at least offer me a bit more information about the person who is friending me, but at most contain some barebones text and a link. One thing the each e-mail could tell me is how many FaceBook invitations are currently outstanding. It doesn't.

Now that I'm getting anywhere between 2 and 5 FaceBook invitations a day, it's really inefficient for me to visit FaceBook to confirm each one separately. I'd rather visit FaceBook once a day or once every couple of days and confirm them all in one fell swoop. But I challenge you to do that when you don't have access to one of the outstanding e-mail invitations. For example, unlike with LinkedIn where, on my next visit to the site, it's relatively easy to find the outstanding invitations, a visit to my FaceBook site reveals no obvious place to go to do the same thing.

Thinking I was missing the big blinking neon link that says "Four people have friended you, check it out!," I asked my office mate (and more experienced FaceBook user) Matt Conner to show me where to go. With no luck, he tried all the same "suspects" I tried. It wasn't under the "Friends" top navigational element. Nor was it under Inbox ("How could this be you ask?" I haven' the foggiest). It wasn't one of the links under my picture. It wasn't on my so-called Wall. Despite there being four outstanding invitations, he couldn't find his way to them. I'm sure the link to them is there, somewhere. But, for a site that clearly wants you using its pages as much as possible (in lieu of other tools like e-mail that are more efficient for certain forms of communication), there's a certain irony in having to go back to the e-mail to find the link that takes you to the page that lives at the heart of FaceBook's supposedly viral nature in the first place.

But it gets worse. There's a certain weirdness to the invitation process that I don't quite understand. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems rather odd that, in the course of confirming a "friend request," FaceBook asks me how I know the person but never asks this question when you're friending someone else. Shouldn't it be the other way around? That way, when you receive an invitation, it might say:

Jason, who claims to have worked with you at Acme Dynamite Co, has added you as a friend on Facebook. We need you to confirm that you are, in fact, friends with Jason.

Instead of the far less mind-jogging current text found in a FaceBook invitation:

Jason added you as a friend on Facebook. We need you to confirm that you are, in fact, friends with Jason.

Anyway, let's distill the FaceBook way of hooking up into English. It's as if the default invitation process at Facebook is the equivalent of someone saying to someone else "Hey, don't I know you from somewhere? Do you want to be my friend? Tell me where I know you from." Did I miss some generation gap? Do we have a new way of speaking to each other?

As bad as the invitation process from FaceBook is, there's an e-mail that's even more impersonal. I received two of these yesterday. One said:

Allison sent a message in reply to a thread. To read the rest of the thread and reply, follow the link below

With the thousands, perhaps millions of threads running on FaceBook at any given point in time, the presumption is (1) I have an interest in the one thread that Allison replied to, and (2) I have an interest in what Allison had to say on that one thread. These may very well be true. But once again, how many page views is FaceBook protecting by not giving me some friggin' clue in the e-mail as to what the thread is about and what Allison had to say about it. You user interface people at FaceBook, help me out here. Enslaving me to your pages just to see if I want to participate in some conversation that my friend is a part of is perhaps the most anti-social form of digital behavior I can imagine.  What if I want some idea of what's going on, but am in a situation where I can't get back to the Web site. Like, I'm viewing my mail with a mobile device that isn't so handy at jumping from e-mail to viewing the Web, much less your pages over some super slow connection.  Or, what if I'm viewing my mail offline on a plane?

Bottom line? FaceBook is a fun cool "place." But it's also so painful to use that the site's success confounds me. That friction has got to go.

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