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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Facebook - in 2012 you've been pushing your luck

[Short link to this article if you need it - - or retweet me]

My previous post on Facebook may have seemed too harsh on some of it's users. To rebalance that I'm going to go into a bit more about what's REALLY wrong with the site to give those people some real things to complain about. Facebook has got a lot of stick over privacy concerns and other such things over time. In my opinion they've almost always responded and improved their security model to the point where I happen to believe it's now pretty good - they've got many things right, and that's why it's the only social site where I'm comfortable with not posting things publicly. The exception list for posts is something that isn't on any of the other major networks (e.g. share with "All friends except my children list")

But it's far from perfect, and recently it's finally started to irate me to the point where I have to wonder whether it really is worth sticking with the site at all. My current feeling is that the only thing keeping me there is the existing network, and that may not be enough to sustain it into the future. So what's gone wrong? Here's my personal list ...

Choosing what appears in your feed

You've probably already noticed this, but if you leave facebook with the default settings, then you won't get all posts from your friends and pages you've liked. I think this was a shocking decision (and along the lines of IE10's default of having "Do Not Track" enabled which Yahoo! is already ignoring, but I digress).

For some friends (i.e. those that are posting all the time and start seeming like spam) this change is a good one as it lets you filter out most of the rubbish and let you see other people's posts, but the filtering (Facebook's algorithms for this are called EdgeRank and are quite complex) should be something you opt into for certain friends, not have to opt out of. As per IE10, the default is wrong. Here's how to get back to having all of a particular friend's posts appear in your feed (at the time of writing, it may change):
  1. Go to the friend's page
  2. Click the 'Friends' button near the top
  3. Click "settings" under "Show in News Feed" on the drop down list
  4. Select "All updates" instead of the default which is "Most updates". Check the "Close Friends" option. Of course if you have an extra-spammy friend, you could decrease what you see of them by selecting "Only important" "Acquaintance" instead. (Edits made since Facebook changed it since I wrote it ... again)
For pages you've liked the same problem occurs, but it's harder to get around it. What you have to do is add the page to an "Interest list" that will show in the left panel of the facebook page. It will still only show you some posts from them in your main feed, but at least it will let you get all the posts if you want them. You could add all "companies" to a single list or separate them out into topics. Interest lists can also be shared with your friends as you build them up, so they can follow them too, although oddly you can't share a list with a custom subset of friends:
  1. Go to the page that you've liked
  2. Press the "Liked" button
  3. Select an existing list name or click "New list" to generate a new one
  4. Run through the panels to create the list
  5. Add more pages to the same list (you can actually add users as well, thus along with sharing lists they've actually brought back the friend group concept that disappeared a while back)
After doing this, by clicking the list name under "INTERESTS" on the left, you'll be able to see all posts by the pages in that list. To be honest, the whole mechanism is horrible, but as far as I can tell it's a way of allowing facebook to charge companies to get more exposure news feed. Having said that, here's an explanation of the concepts used for choosing which items are important enough to show.

But it also creates more work for the end-users to follow the brands and companies they want, and that's concerning. It actually encourages brands to create "user" accounts and become "friends" with you as that's the only way you can see all the posts from the companies you've chosen to "Like" short of them paying facebook. I don't like being "friends" with businesses, but I'd understand it with what facebook is doing...

Spammers playing the system

I mentioned this in my last blog post, but there are too many "chain posts". Almost exclusively full of nonsense, drivel, lies, or things just designed to be a nuisance. Two types in particular are starting to annoy me.
  • Pictures being shared just displaying a few short words of text. Superficially this just takes up more space, but actually Facebook's EdgeRank filter which filters out drivel and decide what to show you tends to prefer images, and it appears that it's more likely to appear in my stream than if you just clicked "share" on some text quote.
  • "Look at this picture than write some word/phrase in the comments". Serves no purpose other than the same as the last point. People believing something clever will happen. It won't. The only real such trick with coments I know if is the one where you can insert control codes to expand stuff into names, and that's got nothing to do with images. Please, if you do something like that - remove your comment so others don't get sucked in. You don't want to be a nuisance to your friends do you?
These are the sorts of things I covered in the last blog. Misinformation. If you want to spread a serious fact, quote the source, don't just blindly repost something which is probably nonsense or which you can't back up, and definitely don't let an app post it until you've verified it's doing what it says it is.

Facebook's bleeding privacy settings

I mentioned facebook's good options for controlling privacy, but at some point over the last couple of months (I think) facebook has done something exceptionally stupid. If you share a post with a custom list of people you've created, it used to just say "custom" if one of your friends hovered over the permissions icon. Now it actually displays the full list of people who can see the post. I was utterly shocked when I discovered this. Previously, the exact list of people was hidden. Now it's not. The list name is, of course, still hidden (at the time of writing ... The screenshot on the right is an example from the first time I saw it. Note that if you use "Friends except ..." then it DOESN'T currently show the list like this)

Leaking your data to friends' applications

This is one that I'm including purely to highlight the option to fix it. It's something that shouldn't be necessary, but with all the scams and so on that people seem to click on (if you've ever seen a "free iPad" post or some outrageous video with a comment that your friend probably didn't write) it is, sadly, probably a good idea to tighten up on what your friends' dodgy apps have access to.

At present the options are under "Privacy Settings" - "How people bring your info to apps they use" - here is what it looks like by default:

Under there you can control what information from your profile is available to all your friends' dodgy apps - and given how many people click on the apps I suspect there's plenty of money to be made in building databases for identify theft. On that basis, I'd clear of the following checkboxes:

  • Bio
  • Birthday
  • Family+relationships
  • Current location
  • My status updates

Because if you keep them hidden from anyone who isn't a friend, you certainly don't want whoever put tog that ether some dodgy app to scam people getting access to that info.

Finding your friend's comments in the masses

There are a number of posts that go become very popular and get lots of likes and comments. While there's nothing wrong with things going viral, if you see a message that your friend has commented on such a post along with 334,410 others however, it isn't at all easy to find your friend's post. Facebook shows you the post they've cos too much to ask and all you see under the posmmented on, so why not include the friend's comment, and possibly the few before in case it's useful for context. No, apparently that's too much to ask and all you see under the post in your news feed is something like this:
And if you click the comments you just get the last few, not necessarily including your friend's one. By the time you've found it, you've likely lost interest entirely .

est making it available to opt-in?

Difficulty of sharing posts with links

Have you ever tried to hit 'Share' on a post with a web link? Unlike plain text status updates, if you share a link then it doesn't let you share the original post's text, which may in many cases be the useful part. Its no wonder people prefer to cut+paste bogus chain letters instead of using the share button (although, of course, such chain letters generally don't have reference links anyway)

The ticker - creating classes of users

Ahhh the ticker. The actual source of many of those rumours about facebook "leaking" information to your friends by making it more obvious to you when your friends comment on things etc. If you don't already know, the ticker is the "mini news feed" that appears in the top right of your page if you have it, and it can't be turned off. But get this - the ticker does not reveal anything you didn't have access to already - it just makes it easier to see. The same is, of course, true of the timeline which so many people complained about. It primarily just made the info that was already visible to people easier to get to.

But that's not what I have a problem with. I object to it not yet being available to everyone. For some inexplicable reason, unlike the timeline which has been rolled out to pretty much everyone now, the ticker is not. And facebook's FAQs just say something about usage amounts. Well I'm sorry, but the ticker would make the service more valuable to me. It's not on my account - I'm less likely to use your site without it. And what would be the disadvantage of just making it available to opt-in?

Recommendations on mobile

On mobile sites, speed is of the essence. You're usually on a low-bandwidth connection, and so getting the data to the device and rendered as quickly as possible is of utmost importance. I understand the need for adverts on a free site, and as I've said before I don't object to them so much. But what I don't want is to log into your site on my device and find the first screenful of data is filled with "recommended pages" and none of the content I want. Please facebook, put ONE advert on the screen, preferably at the top, not multiple "recommended" pages followed by a section of "recommended" friends. . That's not smart even if you ignore the fact I'm not sure I've added a recommended friend in years. That just makes me want to close the window and not scroll down to find out what my friends are doing.

Sponsored posts

As mentioned in the previous section, I don't have a problem with adverts. But it becomes a problem if you're tailoring adverts based on my friends' "Likes" and not my own ones. We know that facebook is using EdgeGraph to hide certain articles as I mentioned earlier , and that companies can pay to increase their chance of being displayed. But what I don't like is when I get objectionable injected into my feed, and there doesn't appear to be a way of blocking a certain page from appearing.

And more importantly, do the people who've "Liked" the pages know that they've triggered this? The sponsored stories include the name of the person who "Liked" the account, thus triggering the ad, above them, but they may not realise it. There appears to be no obvious indication on any of the pages with sponsored posts that they are using the feature, so you'd have to have a friend tell you that a page you'd liked is generating them (if you cared).

[2014 EDIT] In fairness to Facebook, you only have to go to that Settings-Adverts menu to see exactly what they're doing and an explanation. I don't subscribe to (i.e. "like") many corporate feeds such as Amazon, and I'm happy for the products or artists I endorse through a "Like" to tell my friends that info, so I don't have those options disabled, but the privacy (and potentially legal) implications around this have caused a lot of controversy.

And what I've listed are the examples of problems that facebook are making themselves. The scams and other nonsense referred to in my previous post are all things that make the site less fun to use, and if facebook isn't fun to use, then facebook is nothing.

Facebook, please, sort some of this out. I'm seeing more facebook users giving twitter a shot. MySpace is relaunching, Google+ isn't (so far) making the same mistakes, and you now have shareholders to answer to. The fact you're not giving me control of what's in my fed is inexcusable when competitors aren't doing the same filtering. And since you don't have too many other products to fall back on if you start hemorrhaging your user base by alienating them with the things I've just described.


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