Facebook facelift targets aging users and new competitors

Social network overhauls user profiles to link feed technology to the user forum content

Facebook Inc. rolled out a major redesign of its social networking site late Sunday that features a cleaner interface that links feed technology with user forums. Company officials said the updated site will give users more control and ownership over their profiles.

But many who follow Facebook pointed out that there is more behind Facebook's facelift than its stated goal to simplify and clean up the design of its user profiles. The new version, which is now in limited use, will be rolled out gradually to Facebook's 80 million users in the "coming days," Facebook said.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement that the changes aim to highlight users' most recent and relevant information, giving them "even more control and ownership over their profiles and simplify the user experience."

The redesign, for example, integrates feed technology and the Facebook Wall, a forum for users and their friends to post comments, photos, video and content from third-party applications. In addition, users will have the option of previewing third-party applications before adding them to their profile or granting it access to their information.

Sarah Perez, a blogger at Read Write Web, noted that the redesign coincides with the move into the job market by many of the users who flocked to Facebook when the site launched in 2004 as a closed network just for college students.

"Cleaning up a Facebook profile … as well as ditching a slew of time-wasting applications is almost like a coming-of-age ritual now," Perez noted. "As the college kids move into the real world, the social network needs to reflect their changing needs in order to stay relevant while still appealing to the next generation of users." She said Facebook is looking to convince the so-called Gen Y workforce "that their set of social media tools can be the new way to get things done. It helps when profiles aren't filled with pointless, time-wasting apps that don't just fill your screen but also spam you and your friends with their notifications."

Because users will be able to preview third-party applications before using them, and thanks to a new application bookmarking feature that gives quick access to the most frequently used bookmarks, the most popular applications will be the ones that are actually useful, she added.

"As the Facebook generation grows up, they should find added value in the new redesign which highlights more relevant and current information while putting the most useful aspects of Facebook at their fingertips," she noted.

Although Facebook is highlighting the changes as a way to create a cleaner user experience and to allow developers to interact better with users, the real strategy is to highlight new content relevant to the user and to foster conversations about that content, said TechCrunch blogger Michael Arrington.

These changes create a new Facebook home page that "looks an awful lot like" FriendFeed, a site launched in February by ex-Googlers.

"They like what they see at FriendFeed, which expertly combined the idea of an activity stream that was first popularized by Facebook with the microblogging trend introduced by Twitter," he noted. "Users constantly add content that their friends read and comment on, which creates yet more new content. Facebook still silos most of this information, although they are more than happy to have users bring in third-party data to the Facebook feed."

The changes also clearly show that Facebook is looking to spur growth, particularly in the U.S. and other markets where they are still trying to gain on market leader MySpace, he added.

"Many of the changes seem designed to put the year-old application platform on the backburner more than anything," Arrington said. "Facebook has had to fight an ongoing privacy, spam and competitive battle with its more aggressive third-party developers, using algorithmic and policy tools."

Mashable's Adam Ostrow noted that Mashable readers had been split evenly in response to the redesign. "So far, it's unclear how Facebook plans to promote the new site to users and get them involved in the beta," Ostrow wrote. "It's a major change in look and feel that will likely be dramatic for mainstream users. Meanwhile, keeping the option to revert to the old Facebook for a while should help Facebook weather what will surely be some confusion and anger from ever-fickle social networking users."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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