Facebook's core business problem

The social media service has done a great job including just about everyone with an Internet connection. That's exactly the problem.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Like any social media platform, Facebook needs eyeballs to survive. It doesn't matter how many photos or games or pages or even deals it has to offer; if people are not interested in using the service, it's all for naught.

Over the years, the service has been aggressive in making changes to ensure its survival, and over the long-run, they've largely been savvy decisions: the news feed, formal pages and Timeline have all helped the service structure data in such a way to facilitate targeted advertising and the like, even if I'll never be completely content with the restriction that I can't simply put "early '90s alternative rock" as a music preference and just leave it at that.

Over time, Facebook grew from a restrictive Ivy League social network to one where only the non-digital were left out. Like so many other social networks, from Twitter to Path to Pinterest, Facebook started as a trendy club. The difference is that it evolved carefully enough to turn the place into a global town square.

That's a wonderful thing, both for Internet denizens and Facebook's business model. More scale in user adoption and more leverage in business deals, all while users get to reconnect with old friends and distant family. Win-win.

Early in its evolution, Facebook shifted users' attention from profiles to status updates, after it introduced the News Feed. For a long time, that wasn't a big deal -- sure, there was a lot more information to digest, and some people cried foul about it. But it was all being created by friends you cared about.

As Facebook continued to scale, so did our friends circles, and now it's likely that you're Facebook friends with family members, coworkers, college friends and post-college friends, with handfuls of single-serving contacts along the way. Your personal network now encompasses a number of real-life social circles, past and present, with just a single thing in common: you.

Facebook has met this overwhelming amount of information by employing an algorithm to emphasize and de-emphasize certain friends' updates. It has been a rocky path: first, Facebook gave users the ability to create custom lists around those real-life friends circles (e.g. work, family, friends). Then it realized only a minority of users were using the tools, so it started taking matters into its own hands.

Wonder why you never see updates from your 348th high school classmate anymore? That's why. 

It's a good idea in theory; if you have more than 1,000 "friends," the noise becomes impossible to overcome. No one should have 1,000 friends, but who's counting? I no longer hear from my 348th high school classmate anymore on Facebook's News Feed, and he/she me. While the occasional voyeuristic update is missed in the name of digital social diversity, it's no great loss.

But there's much work left to be done.

In recent months, my feed has become overwhelmed by shareable items. I suspect yours has, too. For example, one member of my immediate family is addicted to sharing inspirational photos; one member of my extended family -- a military veteran -- has a penchant for sharing pro-military items; another friend is hell-bent on inviting everyone with a pulse to join Zynga's newest game, every week. Logging on to Facebook has become the digital equivalent of visiting the DMV: it's hot, it's crowded, everyone's waiting around in boredom and a bunch of crazy people are shouting in the corner.

Get me outta here.

This is a business problem for Facebook. If it can't hang on to its users -- people like me, who want to use the service and would consider using a competing one -- it's a slippery, albeit miles-long, slope to irrelevance.

So what's really happening here? Facebook has figured out how to filter content roughly, based on the person, but it has yet to do so in a more elegant, granular way, based on the kind of person. In short, it hasn't quite figured out how to bridge the socioeconomic divides that exist between our real-life friends circles. I love my family, and I'm stuck with them for life -- but that doesn't mean I need to hear them out more than twice a year. We, simply, are not in the same circle of friends, in the original sense of the term. But on Facebook, it's Thanksgiving dinner, every day of the week.

This didn't used to be such a problem, back when users had to check others' profiles for updates. Want to check the profile of your hyperpolitical friend who has views directly in opposition to your own and spouts them regularly? Great; knock yourself out. In today's format, that information floods in automatically. It's all or nothing.

You could say that Facebook has created user lists for this very reason, so that you can take matters into your own hands. This is true. But the default is everything. Only a minority of users are going to bother with such lists. Meanwhile, everyone will continue friending, forever more. The solution is not more user action. It's the algorithm.

Despite my various ties to people through blood, education, workplace and other various life categories, there's a more nuanced connection I have with certain people whose input I value more highly than others. That could be a shared political view (or none at all -- that is, a preference that Facebook remain an apolitical forum), that could be a topical interest (in my case, publishing), or it could be basic lifestyle choices: while it's lovely to learn how my old classmate is living in Cleveland with her husband and three kids and crafts business, it's not really relevant to my life as a childless urbanite with a serious love for the printed word. What I find funny or interesting or shareable may not be the same as her. The social gap becomes apparent to each user over time. To date, Facebook's algorithm can't really discern the difference, at least as far as I can tell in my experience using my feed.

This, of course, also applies to brands and other businesses using Facebook as a social outreach or advertising platform. On ZDNet's Facebook page, many of the 115,000 people who "like" it don't regularly see updates from us in their feeds, for no apparent reason. We've actually received complaints from readers about this, but the bottom line is that Facebook is controlling the bottleneck -- and in these examples, it's doing so in a way that's clearly counter to user expectation or desire. (I should add, there is no way to tell Facebook, "Yes, I'd like regular updates from this page" or "No, I'd like only occasional updates from this page." Either way, that's no solution for the default.)

To be fair to the company, algorithms must constantly be tweaked, and there's a lot left to learn here. This is, in many ways, a big data problem: the company has given us more and more ways to demonstrate our interests, but not enough ways to indicate and sort their importance relative to each other. If the company can't get it right in a reasonable window of time -- how much that is, I don't really know -- it's going to start losing users who are tired of scrolling through shared items that have little relevance to them. Anecdotally, I find myself graviating more toward Twitter and Instagram, if only because there's less abuse I'm forced to endure.

There will always be users of Internet services who fail to filter their broadcasting appropriately; this has been true since the early days of chain e-mail ("Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: HILARIOUS!!!! Please fwd to 10 ppl"). Facebook doesn't change this dynamic, though it centralizes its effects. It was Facebook's decision years ago to take on the responsibility of filtering this information for us; if the company can't get a handle on more finely tuning the flow, it's going to lose users fed up with trying (and failing) to maintain their experience; a never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole with exponentially more holes each round.

The town square will remain, sure. But it will not be the same.

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