Thursday, March 5, 2009

We Know What You Want

You gotta love Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not so long since Facebook’s head honcho was busy telling us how we shouldn’t be at all bothered that his company was going to claim copyright on all the pictures of our kids that we’d uploaded to Facebook. Today, however, Mark decided to reach out of cyberspace and personally make my life a misery. Or so it seemed at 9:00am this morning.

One of the great things about Facebook is that they continually think about how we could be doing things “better.” Then they make us do them. Without asking us first. Facebook believes that we have a problem with connecting to the information that we want. We may not know that we want it yet, but Facebook knows and it’s going to make life better for us. As Zuckerberg said in a posting to the Facebook Blog yesterday:

“… we must build Facebook to give everyone the power to share anything they want and connect with anyone they want. The way we're doing that is to first extend people's ability to connect with everything that interests them, and to give people a way to get updates from all of these connections. Then, we're going to increase the pace of the [information] stream, so you can immediately see what is going on around you.”

Well that all sounds Fine and Dandy, and if you’d asked me yesterday what I thought about this I’d have given it a big thumbs up. That was before I logged into the YPM’s prototype Facebook page this morning to make some last minute checks before our group presented it to our Director this afternoon. And found that it had totally changed.

Our original Facebook page had all the content on one page. We had pushed our Wall (for all you FB virgins out there, that’s the area where people can post comments and where changes that we’ve made to the page are flagged) to the bottom of the page, and had front-loaded the page with a lot of cool applications that fed in video from our YouTube channel, and RSS feeds from our blogs and our Twitter feed, and links to exhibits, and a really cool new application that lifts content from an XML page populated with data and images from our on-line catalog. All of this stuff was gone.

Actually, it turned out it wasn’t gone. It had been moved to onto a separate screen, accessed by a tag labeled “Boxes” (because if anything says “on-line exhibits” or “blog feeds” to users, it’s the word “boxes”). Our photo albums where on another tab. Our carefully chosen image of YPM was shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. The information about where we are and when we’re open, which was originally at the top of our page, was shoved onto another tab, called “Info” (admittedly a bit more informative than “Boxes”). And all we were left with on our front page was the Wall, proudly announcing things that we had done, in some cases, weeks ago along with statements of ball-busting inanity (“Yale Peabody Museum has installed the Profile Box application”).

All of this was done by Facebook, without reference to us, because Facebook knows that our users don’t want access to on-line exhibits, or opening hours, or video content. They want to know what we’re DOING! Like RIGHT NOW!! And if they like it, they want to tell us that it’s “gr8” or “kuhl.” And that means that the Wall has just become the most important thing that we do. Everything else can get shoved in the back. Just like the conventional websites that we were trying to move away from when we set up the page. You’re allowed to customize the page a little, but you rapidly encounter limitations as to what things can be put on what Tab and where. The design is actually far less flexible than the old single page, where you could pretty much order things as you like.

I trogged over to the Facebook Blog to see who was protesting about this. Expecting a mass of criticism, I instead discovered that over 8,400 people have logged on to say that the changes are gr8 and kuhl. Scattered throughout this, at the rate of maybe 1 per 100 comments, were hapless page administrators asking “why is my page all f*cked up?” and “can I have the old page back?” To which the answer from Facebook is “no.” These are the same changes that Facebook imposed on personal pages a few months back. People protested furiously, and to absolutely zero effect. Facebook knows what’s best for you. And ultimately they may be right. The fact is that institutional page admins form a tiny fraction of Facebook’s users. If Facebook were a democracy, which it isn’t, we’d probably be outvoted. So it may mean more work for us, but we’re going to have to adapt.

By now of course, you are all having a good laugh at me for blathering on about the potential of Web 2.0 and then complaining when social networking priorities come back to bite me in the ass. But I think there’s a lesson to be learnt here. I’m working with a colleague of mine on a project to develop new ways to interact with natural history collections via the web. A couple of days ago we were looking at another, non-Facebook networking application, and she said to me “look at all this stuff out there – it seems like we’re just reinventing the wheel. Why would we want to develop our own application?” Well Facebook has just given us the answer to that question.

Nina Simon wrote a great post on her Museum 2.0 blog in which she said that the future of authority is Platform Power – museums shouldn’t worry about letting visitors control the museum experience because ultimately the museum controls the platform and sets the rules of what which content can be generated, how it can be shared, and how interaction takes place. The problem with museums using Facebook (or MySpace, or any third-party networking technology) is that we don’t have the Platform Power – they do. Facebook knows where it’s going and if you don’t want to go that way – well you can always get off the bus. Just make sure you leave the family snaps behind.


  1. apparently you CAN'T get off the bus, though, which is a disturbing tidbit i learned recently. i haven't checked this with FB but this is from 3rd party tech experience. so not only do you have to comply with their platform power, you're also trapped. eeesh.

  2. I guess when I said "get off the bus" I meant choosing to abandon Facebook as your networking solution. The problem, of course, is that you leave all your uploaded stuff behind on their servers to do whatever with.