Facebook Fail?

Written by Nexcerpt on February 16th, 2011 in Patterns & News.
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Poor design of new systems (or of extensions to current systems) can create conflicts that are difficult or impossible to overcome. If you capture data beyond what you can interpret, or data insufficient for your needs (or with insufficient granularity) all the analysis in the world won’t improve your understanding of that data. And, if the design actually prevents the collection of essential data, no fix is possible.

We may be seeing the limits of scalability, due in part to design failure, play out at Facebook right now.

Recently, Facebook set a new default, such that you see only the activity of friends with whom you “interact most.” You should be able to change this at the bottom right corner of your wall, where the [Edit options] button continually tries to evade you. (Keep trying, and slow your cursor as it approaches the bottom of the screen.) Then, choose “All of your friends and pages.”

Imagine some lone friend of yours who has never posted before, suddenly announcing their impending marriage, immolation, or other outrageously unexpected event. Upon this recent interface change, you are unlikely to hear about it from Facebook. Facebook has decided to hide it from you.

Because you “liked” something your blabby cousin posted a week ago, you’ll keep hearing about their dog’s hijinks every three hours, every day. However, you’ll miss your usually quiet college roommate’s engagement, product launch, or upcoming surgery.

Personally, I suspect Facebook made this change to reduce their need to process hundreds of friends’ data for each individual page visit. Yes, they still need to check the existence of your 300+ friends, but will only need to return, sort, and display activities of a few dozen. Their savings in processing time (and in hardware and network costs) seem staggering.

This change — to limit your awareness of friends’ activities — reduces the number of rows of data Facebook must read and process during the average user’s visit by far more than half. It could reduce Facebook’s total number of required database lookups by hundreds of billions per peak hour.

Reductions of that magnitude could spell the difference between Facebook continuing to function comfortably, or swamping itself into shutdown. On the reasonable hand, the decision may simply mean that Facebook wants to avoid infrastructure expenses or speed server response times. On the conspiratorial hand, it is conceivable that the change signals Facebook foreseeing (and seeking to forestall) a disastrous system failure.

At the very least, it demonstrates that Facebook failed miserably in a basic design phase, by never allowing users to set a “priority” for friends. Facebook has no way to recover from that failure. Even if they were to add such a feature (perhaps high, moderate, and low priority for seeing friends’ posts) most Facebook users would never take the time to assign such values after the fact.

Such data could have been trivial to gather as the system scaled up, and as people added friends. Now, going back to accomplish is would seem tedious and irritating to most users (and virtually impossible for the more promiscuous). Facebook can’t ask for a do-over. They’re stuck with their design. They lost the opportunity to collect all that valuable free data, through a failure to consider that not all people and relationships are equivalent.

As a result, Facebook can’t differentiate my best friends from those I barely know. (Or, they need to do intensive analysis to try to guess which are which.) For example, Facebook equates three bass player friends of mine: one I barely know (who sat in with my band twice in high school); one who was a best friend in college (and still performs from time to time), and one I worked with constantly in grad school (who has won nearly a dozen Emmy and Grammy awards). As far as Facebook knows, they are all the same to me.

Facebook users are human beings, with all the foibles and frailties thereby implied. Facebook can only guess which friend some user might like to impress, or aspire to emulate — as opposed to the friend they might secretly resent, or wish would be quiet.

Facebook can never market to those true human desires, as revealed by the subtleties of those relationships, because Facebook does not permit any of us to report them. FB has chosen to obscure that data from itself, and from all its ad buyers. After-the-fact analytics can’t fix that. And it’s too late to correct their design.

Who’s up for this? Which social network is going to allow users to declare which connections they secretly respect, or secretly resent? Openly love, or virtually loathe? Whoever focuses on that element of thoughtful design will first startle, then depopulate, and ultimately own, whatever remains of Facebook. Somebody needs to get busy.

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