Sven Mesecke's blog

Posted Di 01 April 2014

Facebook as a super-responsive page-user interaction network

(and how to replace it)

Facebook and, to a lesser degree, twitter, are commonly referred to as social networks, i.e., as tools to organize friends, family and followers and communicate with them via messages, wall posts, status updates and tweets. But they also serve as a tool to keep track of bands, campaigns, local companies and not-for-profits. After leaving Facebook a couple of years ago due to a fundamental discomfort with the power I gave to Facebook, I am considering joining again - though this time for entirely different reasons: Groups and Pages, not pseudo-philosophical status updates or anthropomorphic animals.

The social network features of facebook have been replaced by other tools: To share stuff with friends or groups of friends, I use WhatsApp (and most likely Threema or Telegram at some point in the future). To learn about interesting IT topics, I read Hackernews, sometimes r/programming, r/julia and more specialized websites and forums such as seqanswers for my day-to-day job. For political topics I scan a number of German and international newspaper sites. However, when I want to get news about the latest albums or concerts in my proximity by my favourite bands, campaigns by political groups that I find supportable, news from my favourite climbing gym, Facebook and Twitter are the place where everything is aggregated and displayed on entry on a single overview page.

Fine-grained targeted ads are dangerous

But - I cannot stand Facebook. Though I'm not using it as a social network, Facebook still knows a lot about my personality, my likes and dislikes, my political, technological, scientific and societal interests through pages I like and follow. All this information gives Facebook enormous power and especially enormous leverage to influence and direct my consumption. It is naive to assume that advertisements and especially specifically targeted advertising does not influence my reasoning, does not influence my consumption decisions. Generally speaking, I am extremely critical of advertisements as they (sub-)consciously create desires, needs and need-brand associations that were not necessarily there before and that might have a negative impact on myself (e.g., unhealthy food cravings), on the environment (gas-guzzling monster cars) or society (the ever-present smartphone in meetings with friends). Ads emotionalise; they do not inform. They target desires and manipulate self-perceptions in the context of society. Individualized advertising makes this even worse. No one entity should be allowed to have all this information. Despite this, Facebook is convenient for a close connection with public people and companies. It is hard to admit, but Facebook offers value, even to me. Creating new pages easily and distributing them world wide is the hallmark of the web - which features of Facebook enable it to work better than simple web pages?

Facebook features that need to be replicated

  1. A single page on entry (the news and pages feed), showing the latest (or differently ordered) updates from friends and liked pages
  2. Network effects, where basically everyone and especially every group is on Facebook
  3. Rediscoverability - once you liked something of interest, it stays in the list and you continuously receive updates

These items are key for the consumer, however, I believe the producer's part is even more important. For the producer (i.e., someone controling a Facebook page or group) Facebook is simple, yet complete:

  1. No need to tinker with structure and design, you and everyone else works in the same standard setup
  2. Posting is dead simple: Type, attach some links or images and you are done. Everything else, including broadcasting the update to other people's feeds and creating a comments section, is done automatically. This allows for page updates in very quick succession, strengthening the page-user relationship far more than any website with its CMS could do.

Facebook managed to create a uniquely simple system to establish a deep page-user relationship by establising a uniquely responsive interaction system, on both sides. Let's call this Facebook feature Page-User Interaction (or PUI). You're not taken seriously in tech without a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) of your own devising.

Facebook is replaceable

WhatsApp, News aggregators and all sorts of apps could potentially replace some of Facebook's key features with a plethora of tools. However, there doesn't seem to be a competitor in sight that replaces Facebook's PUI. Is there any website in the world that provides a dead simple and relatively strict interface that allows a quick succession of page updates to create a very vivid website? Github.

Github is displaying similar features to those I mention above about Facebook:

  1. Watching or Starring a project allows you to follow its progress on your start page
  2. Issues, wikis, pages and obviously commits allow a very responsive interaction between projects and users.

However, there is a key difference between Facebook and Github: Facebook finances itself through advertisements while Github uses a modified freemium model. Public repositories are free, if you would like to use Github for private repositories you need to pay. This has the effect that Github does not need to become an all-tracking privacy monster for financing its operations, it can provide its features without their users becoming the product. A model for a replacement for Facebook's PUI?

Replacing Facebook's Pages (in a nutshell)

  1. Create a dead simple user interface containing only (optional) user start pages (that aggregate page updates) and organization pages.
  2. Optional user start pages as every single page should be accessible even without logging in, without registering. Pseudonymous account creation would only be necessary for using aggregating start pages and even that could be replaced with URLs tracking all subscribed pages.
  3. Money would come from companies or generally for-profits that would use the site for rapid and close interaction with customers. This would obviously also be the hardest part at the initial stages of site creation - how to create the network size that pushes companies to be willing to pay for a page? It might require quite some cash to burn through, potentially making it questionable that such a site would ever fly.

Nevertheless, in case you would like to discuss this topic in more detail, get in contact with me.

Category: Society
Tags: activism social networks