The five stages of Facebook grief

The world's largest social network is about to hit 500 million. But users are losing interest. Here's why.

Facebook has a huge problem. No, it's not privacy, security, application spam or even horrible P.R. from the upcoming movie, "The Social Network." These are short-term annoyances for the company, but not existential threats.

Here's the real problem: Facebook's social network can't mirror the actual social networks, or social groups, that people have. Because of that, users are beginning to notice a curious effect: The more you use Facebook, the less usable it becomes.

It turns out that our feelings about Facebook aren't static. They're evolving in a way that will eventually lead many of us to quit and find something else -- or at least minimize use.

Facebook is structured on the false assumption that you have one social network. But nobody has one social group.

A nine-year-old has at least two -- parents and peers. A teenager has at least three -- add "trusted close friends." And a middle-aged adult has many: Former school-mates, former colleagues (each company is a separate peer group), non-nuclear family, nuclear family, current co-workers, close friends, etc.

While it's true that you belong to all your social groups, you're the only person in the world who does. Each other member of any group does not belong to your other groups. Sooner or later, your social groups are going to clash and you're going to get burned.

Here are three real-life examples (Names have been changed to protect the guilty):

• Maria's son posts a status update: "Having a great time at the beach with the parents!" Maria's boss posts a comment: "Didn't you call in sick?"

• Bill posts 30 pictures from college, and tags friends in the photos. One of those friends is Steve, who is shown drunk and vomiting in the picture that shows up on Steve's "Photos" page. Mom, dad and grandma all acquire a new perspective on the financial help they gave Steve for college.

• Janet, a high school senior, posts a generic comment about her mood, saying "feeling bla today." Then Margaret, a close family friend in the same age group as Janet's parents, comments, "what's wrong, honey?" After that, several of Janet's high school friends post a series of profane, obscene or objectionable comments that humorously suggest causes or cures. Because Margaret commented, all subsequent comments flow into Margaret's Facebook News Feed.

These cases all illustrate the clash of social groups, where a member of one social group gains unnatural access to the conversation of another.

One of the most common clashes of social groups happens when the parents of young people sign up for Facebook, so common that there's a blog devoted to the catastrophe.

A gaming site called Roiworld surveyed 600 teenagers and found that 20% of teens have either dropped Facebook or are using it less. Of those who have abandoned Facebook altogether, 43% say it's because there are "too many adults or older people," their parents are on Facebook or because they're concerned about privacy.

[ See related: Are we burning out on Facebook? ]

Teens are a "leading indicator" here. The rest of us will follow. Facebook users appear to follow a predictable pattern of evolution with their feelings about Facebook, and teenagers are just further along.

Here are the five stages of Facebook grief:

1. Confusion. What's it for? How do I use it? Why would anyone want to post here? Who's seeing this?

2. Discovery. Hey, my high school friends are here. Reading my News Feed actually makes me feel more connected to people. This is actually pretty fun. I look forward to checking Facebook every day. I love this.

3. Utility. Facebook helps me stay connected to former colleagues, which could help me find a job in the future. I learn things about my own kids that is valuable to me that I wouldn't otherwise hear. It's easier to communicate with everyone on Facebook than e-mail, phone calls or any other means. I need this.

4. Embarrassment. Whoa! I did NOT want my co-workers to see the picture of me someone else tagged. Too much personal information in that post! Whoops! I did not mean to offend someone -- I forgot who would be listening.

5. Withdrawal. To avoid problems, I'm going to have to assume that everything I say is public, not private like I used to think. I'll minimize my posts or stop using Facebook altogether.

Facebook's popularity is based on the reality that human beings are social creatures. Staying connected with people we know is innate to us. But maintaining separate social groups that we don't want to clash is also innate.

In the same way that Facebook got popular by satisfying our need to connect, either Facebook or a competitor will get popular by doing something about Stage 5, which is where we're all heading (if not already there.)

How social networks should work

The social network of the future will pattern itself after real-world social groupings. It will enable people to have private, closed, secure conversations within groups, without fear that one social group will gain access to the conversations of another.

One simple approach would be for a social networking site to force you to place each new friend into one or more social groups. Default labels could be "immediate family," "extended family," "former co-workers," "classmates," "best friends," etc.

To successfully post a picture or status update, you would have to click on checkboxes that determined who got it. You should be able to choose any or all groups.

The posts of others could be color-coded to determine which social group they originate with. Comments would stay within the social groups the comment originated in. Related to this, all profile and personal information would have to be checkboxed as well.

I don't know if my imagined scenario is the best one, or even if it would work. The point is that someone must -- and someone will -- create a system for segregating all the social groups in your life. And whoever does that will win over Facebook users spit out the other end of Stage 5.

Such a system is especially urgent because of the rapid growth and coming automation of location services. People will want to automatically share their current location with one or more social groups, but will want to avoid sharing that information with others.

If they can't block some of their social groups, they will block all -- by avoiding an otherwise valuable service.

One interesting facet of the five stages is that along the way, you start to love and need real social networking. By the end, you still do -- but Facebook not longer satisfies.

The 500 million-user question is: Who will create this social network? Will it be Google with its rumored "Google Me" service? Will it be -- gasp! -- Microsoft? Or will it be Facebook itself?

Nobody knows the answer to that question. But what we do know is that Facebook's current structure is unsustainable. Eventually social groups collide. And when they do, it's lights out for Facebook.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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