How Facebook Ignores Its Users

Facebook consulted with users on Timeline more than on any previous product change. Users hated it, but Facebook gave it to them anyway.

David Carr

May 17, 2012

6 Min Read
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Why do we love Facebook when we hate what it does to us?

At the moment, the thing Facebook users most hate about Facebook is Timeline, according to a study by Attensity based on sentiment analysis of publicly accessible posts on Facebook. In a converse of the maxim, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," it seems everyone who is talking about Timeline at all on Facebook is talking trash about it. By Attensity's rating, the conversation about Facebook Timeline is about 96% negative with the word "hate" as a big part of the discussion.

[ For more, see Might As Well Face It, You're Addicted To Facebook. ]

Presumably, there are people out there who like it, but they're the ones not saying anything at all. When Attensity alerted me to these findings, I shared its blog post on the BrainYard Facebook page with the comment, "Is this a surprise?" At first, I was left wondering if this should even count as news, given how many complaints we've all heard about Timeline since it was announced in September.

With the Facebook IPO looming, earlier this week the Wall Street Journal published an article on Facebook's New R&D Machine, subhead: "Fewer Half-Baked Products Without User Input; 'We've Gotten More Humble.' " The last part is a quote from Chris Cox, Facebook's VP of product, talking about better handling of complaints about and fixes to the site. The article characterizes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as mellowing in his hacker attitude toward website changes and adopting a "decidedly deliberate approach to product development." The article calls Timeline the premier example, "a culmination of an 18-month process that included dozens of test versions and multiple focus groups."

The Journal's story goes on to say: "It isn't yet clear whether Timeline is resonating with users as the company prepares this week for its initial public offering. Many users have complained about the new format. But in contrast with other product launches--some of which inspired protests--the anger is more muted."

Based on Attensity's analysis, maybe it's not so muted:

Positive vs. negative sentiment toward Facebook Timeline.

Detail: what users dislike about Facebook Timeline.

Many of the testy comments are along the lines of "Damn you Facebook for forcing me onto a timeline."It's remarkable that this level of grumpiness over the new profile design persists and that Facebook has not figured out any way of addressing it in a way that makes its users happier. The cliche about Facebook users is that they complain like crazy for a few weeks and threaten to leave the service, but then eventually calm down and learn to love whatever new thing Facebook has foisted upon them. That's what happened with the Facebook news feed, which was quite a system shock when originally introduced. But it still seems people are being dragged into the Timeline format kicking and screaming.

The new layout is called Timeline because it makes it easier to scroll back in time and see what longtime Facebook users were talking about online years ago, and some users would rather let their old posts be forgotten. However, other complaints are about what many consider a confusing two-column layout and unpredictable ordering of posts compared with the familiar Facebook Wall. Timeline also has some attractive elements, such as space for a large "cover" photo or image atop the page.

The authors of the Attensity study wrote: "We were rather shocked at the degree of frustration expressed by Facebook users toward the new Timeline format, given that Facebook is still in the process of rolling out Timeline to individual users and the new format is not yet mandatory. (Although businesses were required to convert their profile pages to the new format in March)."

Facebook announced worldwide availability of Timeline on Jan. 24, saying everyone would get the new layout turned on "over the next few weeks." In practice, the transition has stretched out over the past few months, with individual users getting notices that their profiles were about to be converted on a staggered schedule. Once you get that notice, you have seven days to preview and tweak your Timeline page (potentially eliminating old posts you no longer want shared) before the layout goes public. Earlier this week, the International Business Times reported the final deadline has been set for May 21, but Facebook has not made any further official announcements on converting the stragglers.

It strikes me as unlikely that none of the dislike of Timeline came out in those focus groups Facebook conducted. Certainly, a lot of the current complaints emerged months ago, when Timeline was still available only as a developer preview. It looks more like Facebook took the negative feedback in stride and did what Zuckerberg had decided he wanted to do with user profiles anyway. The attitude seems to be, "Users don't know what they really want until we've given it to them, and even if we give it to them and they say they don't like it, they'll get used to it and love us for it in the long run." Or maybe enough people from the investment or advertising communities responded favorably that what the pesky users thought didn't matter.

"It struck me more like, 'We covered our bases--we did have them give input,'" said Tracy Parkin, a technical writer and usability consultant. Tracy is a professional contact I met through my wife, and I shared the WSJ article following an exchange of messages on Twitter about the Attensity report.

Parkin said she didn't convert to Timeline until she got the notice from Facebook saying her profile was about to be converted, like it or not. "By then, I figured I'll just dive in and see what it's about," she said. "I had heard people complaining about it, so I was curious. But I don't find it beneficial in any way." She wonders what problem Timeline was designed to solve. Were people asking for a better way to find their old Facebook posts, or for their friends to dig around in their history?

Of course, there's also the theory that consumers don't always ask for the products they wind up loving. Steve Jobs didn't run his business on focus groups, and people weren't necessarily asking for products like the iPhone and the iPad until they saw what they could do. On the other hand, when those products arrived, they inspired a lot more love than hate.

Facebook doesn't seem to have measured up to that standard.

"For them to have developed hundreds of prototypes, if that's indeed what they did, and conduct all these focus groups--that's an incredible investment of resources for something that got such low acceptance," Parkin said. Maybe Facebook has the momentum to succeed anyway, but for any other company this would be a disaster, she said. "It's probably not something you'd want to emulate, that's my point."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

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About the Author(s)

David Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Healthcare and InformationWeek Government (columnist on social business)

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