OK, so for this post to be interesting, you’d probably have to be familiar with Facebook, and Twitter.  Cos we’re so Web 2.0 here at Humpy Towers.  And I’m going to assume that you are too.

Facebook has just introduced a new layout, and judging by peoples’ recent comments (where “people” == “my Facebook friends”) from within Facebook nobody seems particularly keen on the new layout.  I’m reading comments such as “NO to the new facebook layout”, “doesn’t get the new facebook, why do they gotta go changing things all the time?!”, and being invited to join groups such as “Vote on the new facebook layout”.

The thing is that with any web-based app there’s going to be constant change: both for usability, and in an environment as leading-edge as Facebook there’s a need to keep looking current, and anybody who’s been on it longer than 6 months will probably recall the reluctance for change the last time they overhauled the site.  Or the time before.  In fact, Facebook update their look at least once a year it seems.

Last time the change took place (and was accompanied by people complaining about how they didn’t like the New Facebook) the chief change in the structure of the thing was to remove the ability for people to include Facebook Applications on their Profile screen.  Suddenly it became a lot harder for people looking at your profile to see all the hatching eggs you’d been sent, or the aquarium you’d built, or how good you were at a geography quiz, or what your IQ score was, or any one of the thousands of other things it was easy and possible to get distracted by.  One reason I was in favour of the last layout change was that profiles (I was a prime culprit of this, too) were taking AAAAAGES to download due to the hundreds of extra trinkets.  It seemed that Facebook had decided to whittle things back so that the Profile screen – your primary point of presence – was simplified.  If you wanted other people to see all the other crap you could set up tabs for them to look at, however by and large (personally, anecdotally) people suddenly couldn’t be bothered because it wasn’t important enough to figure out how to do, and even if you did it would be unlikely that anyone would look at it anyway.

As with any established system which undergoes change there is always a certain amount of intertial resistance, and for a variety of factors.  One is that people don’t like having changes foisted upon them from above without consultation generally… unless of course the change is beneficial and streamlines with what they’ve already got, in which case you never hear any more about it.  Another is to do with Things Being Moved About – it’s the same dread feeling you get every time you upgrade to a new version of Windows, where you knew previously how to perform task X, but in the new version before you can get back to the same level of productivity you’ve got to spend time futzing about with it working out where those arseclowns have moved the option to.

Some people complaining about the new layout have gone into slightly more detail: one I read said “It’s not as intuitively laid out, the changes don’t seem to have benefited the user at all – which kind of seems pointless in making the changes (after all it’s free, so you are trying to attract sponsors – so if users don’t like it they don’t visit facebook as often and hence sponsors as often and the whole thing collapses)”, which is a sort of variation on the last point I made with the added projection of how Facebook’s business model works.  I’d argue that “intuitively laid out” here could be substituted for “familiar”, and – as with the last Facebook change – we’ll all be used to it in 3 or 4 months.  On the “Home” screen in fact they’ve cunningly integrated sponsored content with your personal feed, so it becomes a lot more challenging to visually prefilter ads based on style or position (in the same way that I don’t even see banner advertising on sites any more).

Having said all that, I have to state that I’m not in favour of the new facebook layout, for the following reason: it seems to me that the move is an obvious ploy to align Facebook with Twitter.  You can tell this if you compare the new Home page:

facebook_now

with the output from any Twitter client (in this case, TweetDeck):

twitterThe key points of alignment are:

  1. A comprehensive feed of user updates, with thumbnail pictures of the poster
  2. The chief (in Twitter’s case, ONLY) update mechanism is a text entry box at the top of the screen, prompting “What’s on your mind ?” / “What are you doing ?”

I have read peoples’ descriptions of Twitter as “like Facebook, but with all the irrelevant crap cut out”: in other words, the Status Updates are clearly perceived by many as being the valuable part of the application.  Previously however Status Updates were only a very small part of Facebook, and not used by everybody.  Personally I use it mainly for the networking capability of (re)establishing contact with people from the past and present, and allowing me to contact them without having to keep an up to date set of contact information.  Status updates are interesting, but it’s not the reason I had in mind when I initially signed up.  Twitter, on the other hand, is nothing BUT status updates – hence that’s what you use it for.

“Why is Twitter more desirable than Facebook for status updates?”, I imagine thousands of readers asking – it’s because (and this is the bit where I hope desperately that y’all are on the same page as me) in Twitter you follow people whose opinions you’re interested in reading: in Facebook you network with people who you want to stay in touch with.

They’re certainly not the same thing, and modifying the statement slightly, Facebook also seems hell bent on adding a status update to the feed for Every Single Thing a person does (e.g. Person X has completed a quiz on “What type of post-war violent protest are you?”, and they are Tiananmen Square).  I assume they’ve done this as a means of keeping Facebook applications in front of users’ faces in some way…

The only way I find Twitter (or RSS feeds, or Email) useable is by employing filters, and what TweetDeck allows me to do is set up multiple feeds (see the columns?), based on content and/or grouping (for example, my Friends group contains all the people who I’m personally actually friends with… as well as Tim Minchin, but that’s more just wishful thinking).  I find the new Facebook Home unwieldy because I’ve got about 830 friends listed (vs the 150 or so I follow on Twitter), and currently I don’t know how to filter that information.

Another key difference is that with Facebook you can only be Friends if there’s been a request and an approval, whereas anyone can follow anyone on Twitter.  Facebook has implement the Fan Pages feature, so that you can be a follower of a public profile without an explicit approval from them, however the only one of those I’ve signed up for who is using it is Gary Vaynerchuk (and that’s exactly the reason I’m following him).  However as far as I’m aware there’s extra clicks for someone to update a fan page, and for someone to sign up to a fan page, which makes it just that little bit more onerous than Twitter.

I’m very interested to see where this goes – I can see why Facebook would want to emulate a currently trendy web application (Twitter in the USA as of Feb 2009 had around 8 million users, and that number grows exponentially at the moment due to promotion of the service by public figures such as Barack Obama, Britney Spears, Stephen Fry, MC Hammer… the list goes endlessly on!  Facebook however is in the stronger position, with a Jan 09 USA user base of 42,089,200 users.

One of the reasons for Twitter’s success is its ease of involvement – there are numberous ways of operating the Twitter API: as well as through the main Twitter website, there are numerous Twitter clients for desktop, web, mobile phone, and should you not have internet access you can tweet by SMS.  The downside for Twitter is that the content is also consumable by any of these, and as such they’ve not been able to monetise the service through advertising.  Should Facebook plump for ubiquity they may very well lose the viewer eyeballs which its advert business relies on.

Finally, to the 2 or 3 people who have read this far, it’s worth remembering that though these “Tell the entire world what am I currently up to” services are quite a lot of fun and often useful, it’s worth remembering that they’re just like the rest of the internet, in that EVERYBODY can see them.  It is therefore critical to be aware that you need to apply the normal rules of common sense and also law to what you say.  2 recent examples which immediately spring to mind are people saying what they really think about their job on Twitter, and US court trials which have been placed in jeopardy by having jurors sending updates to Twitter during the trial.

But with 271,000,000 Google results for the phrase “Old facebook vs new facebook”, I daresay the analysis and debate is going to continue for a while yet.  At least until they change it again.