Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The five stages of Facebook grief

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.

A gaming site called Roiworld surveyed 600 teenagers and found that 20% of teens have either dropped Facebook or is 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.
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.
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.

Writer:  Mike Elgan

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