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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.

July 17, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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