Elgan: Fighting Facebook feature fatigue

Facebook is annoying users with complexity, confusion and censorship. Here's what you can do about it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this week that his social network is now "a new way to express who you are."

Zuck, I know who I am. Who are you?

We all joined Facebook to reconnect with old friends, keep in touch with family, and enjoy a stream of comments and photos that kept us up to date with the lives of people we care about.

Suddenly, thanks to a flood of new features, Facebook is a newspaper and a media hub, a scrapbook and life-streaming platform. Which is great -- for Facebook.

Unfortunately, Facebook is now violating three unwritten rules for making users happy with social services:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Keep it linear.
  3. Deliver the mail.

And because of these reckless violations, users are becoming unhappy. Very unhappy.

I'll tell you what you can do about Facebook feature fatigue in a minute. In the meantime, let's look at the user-satisfaction rules Facebook is breaking.

1. Keep it simple.

Is Facebook the new AOL? The new Yahoo? These comparisons attempt to crystallize how Facebook, the company, has changed.

But from the user's perspective, Facebook has become the new Microsoft Word. Here's what I mean.

I've used Word since 1990. For several years, every new version was welcome, coming with improved formatting and font handling, speed and ease of use.

But about 10 years ago, something curious happened. New versions stopped being better; they started being worse. Mind you, the technology was better. The new features demo'd well. They even helped sell upgrades. It's just that improvements got in the way of what I wanted to do: Write simple documents, then send or print them.

Word became an HTML editor, a professional book formatting system, an enterprise application platform and an all-purpose communication engine.

The button bar is now consumed by "Styles," "Themes" and giant buttons for inserting text boxes, shapes and pictures, which I never use.

Worst of all, Word became "smart." By default, it now auto-formats documents, adding curly quotes, bulleted lists, live links and other unwanted changes that my editors hate. When I paste in URLs, it adds space before and after the URLs. Word does all kinds of "smart" things, and I hate those things all because they take away control.

I found myself spending the majority of my time either fighting Word's "smart" features for control of my documents, or trying to figure out Microsoft's new, improved random locations for everything.

So after 21 years, I finally quit Word completely, and now use Apple's cheap and simple Pages application. It's great on both my iMac and my iPad. It's clean and simple, and it does everything I need it to do. When I'm done, I just save it in Word format and send it off to my editor.

Feature bloat wrecked Word, and now it's wrecking Facebook.

In just one week, Facebook has added a new Subscribe button, a new Friends system, a new concept for the News Feed, a Ticker, integrated messaging, a new system for sharing third-party applications and new music, video and news sharing options. And there's a host of other new applications coming down the pike. It also added a service called Timeline, which lets people create a life history and life-streaming profile page.

Is more always better?

Sure, some small minority of users want to share absolutely everything that happens in their lives. Some want to spend hours adding and annotating baby pictures to their Timeline. But the majority don't.

Facebook apparently hasn't noticed the simplicity movement. iPads are dominating the market because they do less. Twitter succeeds to the extent that it does because it does less. Most important, Facebook succeeded initially because it did less.

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