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Facebook's complexity will be its doom

Farewell, 'Wal-Mart of the internet'

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Open...and Shut Facebook released some impressive updates to its ubiquitous social platform at last week's F8 developer conference. It also managed to scare the pants off even the most ardent Facebook admirers. Like me.

But the fear, at least in my case, is less about Facebook's relentless invasion of users' privacy, and more about how its thirst for greater user engagement is making the service unwieldy and bloated.

Facebook, in short, is losing its luster as an easy place to mingle with friends online, because users have to spend so much time tailoring its filters to manage their social interactions.

Facebook calls it "frictionless sharing." I call it "frictionless overload" of the most pettifogging kind.

Hence, as much as I've ridiculed the notion of "open Facebook" options such as Diaspora and Altly, I'm starting to wonder if there isn't room for an alternative. I just wish such alternatives weren't so often amateurish.

In response to Facebook's privacy land grab last week, for example, Diaspora tried to hit up would-be defectors, among them a non-techie friend of mine who posted her interpretation of Diaspora's offer on Facebook:

Things Diaspora has just promised me:
  1. I can have a seed all to myself.
  2. I can do what I want.
  3. I will have social freedom.
  4. I will not be controlled by a corporation.
  5. I will have the ultimate power.
  6. I will be rewarded for my patience.
  7. Nobody will ever treat me with indifference again.
  8. I will finally be beautiful.
  9. YOU WILL OBEY ME.
  10. I WILL BE LIKE A GOD.

If only. With 800 million users, Facebook's lead will be tough to beat. And if someone is to win against Facebook, it's unlikely to be Diaspora, but more likely Google, given that Google+ is better funded and already "in" with the geek crowd, as Dan Lyons points out.

Whoever ends up claiming the field, Facebook increasingly seems to be opening itself up to competition. The social network is creeping some out with its privacy-invading innovations, annoying others with undesirable changes to the UI/UX, and, in my case, driving users to distraction by foisting upon its users the meaningless details of everything those 800 million people happen to be doing.

I use Facebook to interact with a select group of friends. I don't necessarily want to know what apps they're using, what music they happen to be listening to right this second, and so on.

I have total control to ignore such things, or turn them off, right? Well, sort of.

Facebook, like much of the rest of the rising web generation, has misunderstood Tim O'Reilly's "architecture of participation" idea and instead forces its users into participation. Its privacy controls are either coarse-grained or fine-grained.

For example, I can turn off Spotify for everyone or I can do it friend-by-friend. I'm also finding that Facebook's algorithms that determine what is a top story for me are off at least 75 per cent of the time – I'm constantly having to deprecate its chosen top stories and highlight others. Even with the relatively close company I keep on Facebook, that turns into an administration nightmare that I have little time to solve.

To make Facebook useful for me, I am forced to undergo hours of bother, tuning settings to get the inflow of information correct. I'm not sure I have that patience.

And I'm increasingly not alone in this. A friend and high-profile Silicon Valley CEO posted his own complaint on Facebook, arguing that it has become too unwieldy to remain his preferred gathering place for friends.

Facebook, in its attempt to significantly increase user engagement even as its user growth seriously slows, faces the prospect of overloading its users with engagement.

Developers revolt

Things aren't much better for Facebook developers. Robert Scoble points out that startup Color is "using Facebook's platform to hold ALL data," and seems to think this is a good thing. It's not.

Just ask Zynga, which has been desperately trying to declare its independence from Facebook and finally achieved a measure of independence for its CityVille property by porting to the Google+ game platform.

Watch for more of the same as developers, just like their users, discover that as powerful as it is to be on the dominant social platform, it's wise not to become too dominated by said platform.

For some, Facebook's biggest problem may well be an all-consuming disregard for personal privacy, with the most recent imbroglio being Facebook's alleged tracking of its users even when they log out of the service.

But my sense is that it's Facebook's overreaching that will be its undoing. Yes, this is partially a privacy issue, but it's more a utility issue: I don't have time to spend all day weeding Facebook's data garden. The site is making the social experience unruly by bombarding its users with too many details of others' lives.

Do users have control? Again, the answer is "sort of." They have the ability to tweak settings, but with Facebook defaulting to a torrential downpour of data onto unsuspecting users, few will have the time and patience.

Perhaps this is why two of my hip, 17- to 20-year old neighbors have dropped off Facebook. One told me he left because Facebook has become the Wal-Mart of the internet. The other just thinks Twitter is cooler.

It's unclear whether Google+ – which now has 50 million users but remains yawn-worthy – Twitter, Diaspora, or something else will displace Facebook. But it increasingly feels like Facebook has overreached in its bid to socialize everything we do online.

In its quest for even greater user engagement, Facebook may actually be setting the stage for its own demise. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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