The new Facebook layout: a step forwards, backwards or sideways?

A change of design for a site like Facebook is always a prompt for discussion and controversy. Facebook is so much part of many people’s experience of the web now that it’s like someone deciding that trees should be purple. Coupled with the fact that, in general, the reaction to change amongst the masses is negative (not always unjustly – they have a tool they know how to use, and somebody’s now making them re-learn). In general it’s also true that the negative comments are vocalised.

I was actually a fan of the last homepage design (July 2008). Not necessarily because it was a perfect layout, because I don’t think it ever quite came together in that sense, but because it was necessary due to the changing way that Facebook was working. The growth in “shared” information (or at least activity information) and the way applications that worked the system were degrading the experience for a lot of people.

This time, I’m not so sure. I think the concepts are definitely in the right area: the activity stream (even when it was called a newsfeed) was one of the most interesting things about Facebook and what struck me as a cornerstone of its success from the start. Below are a few thoughts about the new change of emphasis on positive and negative. (And I’ll just say “yes, it’s more like Twitter” and consider that the end of that comparison.)

An emphasis on who performs an action rather than the action type

The “old” Facebook newsfeed displayed a list of items each with an associated application newsfeed icon next to them. This made it easy to blank out e.g. all the news items from applications you had no interest in. The name of the user (or multiple users sometimes – there was aggregation of news items) would display as part of the story but it was easier to scan the “what” of the activity rather than the “who”.

This has all changed now. We have big, chunky photos, and at best a small application icon. It’s not about what you’re interested in it’s who you’re interested in.

There’s a lot to be said for this. The old newsfeed had a strong preference for showing me stories from Facebook’s own applications, regardless of the user involved. This didn’t always work for me, and studies have shown that we only have a handful of close contacts regardless of how big our friend list was. Emphasising the people rather than the activity helps me here.

Content creation rather than a stream of passively generated activity

This is a big gamble. The onus now is on each of us to want to “share” information, and it’s all part of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the growth in sharing. I’m not sure how successful this is going to be; time and time again the internet has shown us that no matter how easy it is to be a content creator, the majority of people are happy just to be content consumers.

Facebook’s saviour here may actually be applications and the fact that, to grow, a developer really needs to push a user to finding an action they’ve just performed interesting enough to want to tell everyone about it. As an application developer, if you can crack that then you know your message will be seen. Possibly this will lower the content creation barrier to such an insignificant level that users will be happy to click the “Post to profile” button a few more times than they conventionally do.

This also reminds me of a point I read a while back as to why people in the internet industry like Google, but a lot of the public still likes Yahoo. People like me use the internet to (mostly) find information. We go to Google with a purpose, and Google generally gives us good results. A large number of people are not like that; they go to Yahoo because they’re bored, and because Yahoo shows them things to do. In a similar way, the new Facebook has shifted emphasis slightly from “entertain me” to “help me to entertain my friends”.

User filtering (by friend) rather than algorithm filtering

Almost since the beginning of the newsfeed Facebook have had an algorithm to present the user with the most relevant newsfeed stories. There have always been lots of guesses about how this works, and although it didn’t get it right it did do the job of filtering down thousands of newsfeed stories per day into a couple of hundred.

This looks to be changing, at least in the activity stream. Everything goes in here now, and if the user gets fed up with hearing about somebody then they can put their friends into different groups and filter by those groups. Will users do this? I’m not sure. It seems like a business analysts dream, but not necessarily a tool for a casual user.

We do have a version of the algorithm now, though, in the “Highlights” section of the right hand column. At present this is rather bulky and doesn’t update very often, but it could become an interesting take on the idea of a recommendation engine.

A step in the right direction?

For me, it remains to be seen. It’s a risk for Facebook to make such a fundamental change and although there will doubtless be thousands (millions?) of members of groups with titles along the lines of “Bring back the old Facebook”, I doubt we’ll see any kind of mass exodus. If a change comes then it will happen over time, and would need a viable alternative for the non-MySpace generation. Much as the comparisons between the new design and Twitter are made, I don’t think it’s going to be there. Or maybe Facebook’s changing just as users are evolving, and possibly the future is all about content generation and sharing.

It’s too early to tell whether it’s a step forwards or backwards, but I do believe Facebook just took a small step sideways.

Bigger ads or better ads?

There were two interesting pieces of news in the internet ad space this week. Yesterday, Google announced they’re rolling out behavioural targeting for Adsense. What this means is that they’ll look at what types of sites you visit (if those sites are running Adsense) and then ads will be targeted at you based on those sites.

The second piece of news was that a group of large traffic websites are trialling some new ad formats. US national newspapers including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are running some huge ads. You can read more about them here.

To me, these two highlight stark contrasts in response to the problem of ad-blindness, and typifies an new media response vs an old media one. The old media response (the newspapers) is: “people don’t notice ads, so we have to make it so they can’t help but ignore them”. Bigger ads, more movement, and an “in your face” approach.

The new media response, from Google, is: “people don’t notice ads, maybe we should make them more relevant”. Nick Gonzalez at Social Media thinks that the bigger ads are the way forward. “Making ads more conspicuous is one way publishers can argue they serve advertiser’s interests better“. I can’t argue with that, but making larger ad formats just seems to be part of a never-ending arms race between blanking attention, growing monitor sizes and advertisers. Nick’s commentary on Google’s announcement is “What advertising needs … is improving the advertising experience, not targeting. Make ads better, not more targeted“. (The sentence starts with

Now it may be that Nick’s opinion tells us more about the direction of Social Media than anything else, but the aim of “make ads better” doesn’t seem to contradict the idea of “make ads more targeted”. Show me something I want to see and I’m more likely to think it’s better.

While internet advertising is taking a rare dip it will be interesting to see what future the bigger, and more intrusive, ads have vs the attempt to become more relevant. It may only be part of the picture but I know which direction I’d be backing.