Category Archives: Facebook

The morbidity of the Facebook Timeline

Not much happened in my life between being born and 2007.

When Facebook rolled out its “Timeline” to replace their Profile pages, it seemed like a neat gadget.  It seemed like an odd move to get rid of the activity stream that had been on Profiles before, but it was kind of neat to see an overview of the person’s life, along with the large picture they could choose to show at the top.  The Timeline is more visually interesting and distinct than the Profile, but over time something about it bothered me, and I didn’t really get get my mind around it until now:

The Facebook Timeline is morbid.

Where are we used to seeing the “timeline” paradigm?  History books.  Timelines are used for tracking progressions of significant events chronologically, events that usually have an explicit beginning and an explicit ending.

When I look at my Facebook Timeline, I feel it is a weird mesh of the profound and the trivial.  It lists a string of mostly insignificant events, things I’ve liked, comments I’ve posted, photos I’ve uploaded, songs I’ve listened to, and other nuggettes of daily life.  Alongside these minutiae, at one end is my start (birth), and at the other end…my end.  That’s pretty heavy for a social network profile page.

The timeline therefore becomes an online tombstone in progress.  Someday, nothing I do will show up on it anymore, and my friends and family will come to my Facebook Timeline to see what happened in my life, and they’ll see that I liked this viral cat video, or listened to Lady Gaga on Spotify.  Maybe a few significant events will be sprinkled in between, but how much of what we do every day on Facebook is really significant or worth remembering for more than a few hours?

It is this unintentional memorializing of the trivialities of life that I object to, and why I wish Facebook would bring back the old Profiles.  I liked them when they felt fluffy, when they were fleeting, and changed constantly based on my whims, and captured the essence of now rather than documenting my existence for future generations to peruse and be amused by.

If I wanted to create a memorial to myself, a summary of my life, a memoir, I would do so on my own.  There are probably sites dedicated to this.  But why force this morbid paradigm onto my daily communications with friends and family, without giving me a choice in the matter?

Most design decisions Facebook are very much about living in the moment.  The News Feed, the Ticker, Chat, Messaging, Open Graph, Places – all have been built to spread information about NOW, about what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and whom I’m doing it with, so to slap a layer on top of this that turns my Profile into a living document of my life is intensely off-pitch.

As it stands, the morbidity of the Timeline has largely turned me off from using Facebook.  Hopefully Facebook will realize the error of their ways and rebuild Timelines to be more temporal and less monumental.  Time will tell…

 

Google+: Better than Buzz and Wave, but no Facebook Killer

So I finally got in to test out Google+, and I have to say it’s definitely an interesting product.  I can’t dismiss it the way I did with Google Wave.  Here are some of my first impressions:

Circles

Adding friends to your Circles starts out fun but quickly becomes a daunting task.  G+ appears to use my Gmail account history to suggest people that I might want to add to my Circles, which is convenient, but regular Gmail users like myself may end up with an overwhelming number of recommendations.

I have 500 recommendations (presumably this is a maximum), and I just don’t want to take the time to sort them all into Circles. Maybe I’ll whittle away at it over time…I stopped after 40 friends because it’s just too tedious.  This is why the Friend Lists never took off over at Facebook, but I don’t think it’s a good sign that Google hasn’t really improved upon the concept aside from slapping a nifty UI on it.

It’s not immediately clear that people whom you add to your Circles will receive an email notification.  I added several people whom I’m not close to, but I just wanted to follow their updates (like Twitter), and they may be rather confused when they see that I’ve added them on G+.  Google needs to work a little on this process to make it more clear what’s going on, and what the consequences of your actions are.

The Stream

In “The Stream” (like Facebook’s Feed), you can see updates from anyone whom you’ve added to your Circles, without them having to approve you as a friend (although they are notified, and can Hide or Block you after the fact.)  This makes G+ work a little like Twitter, actually – you can have a 1-way relationship, more of a “follow” than a “friend,” but you still need to know someone’s email address in order to “follow” them, so don’t expect many celebs to be joining up or ditching Twitter for this.

Using 1-way relationships is a very interesting product decision, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.  It’s possible that people may develop a Twitter-like usage pattern, where they follow a lot of people that they don’t know, particularly in business circles.  For instance, if you can get the email addresses of people in your industry, you can just start following their G+ updates, but of course you’ll only see content those people make public unless they add you to one of their Circles and publish to that Circle.

If you add someone to your Circle who isn’t using G+, they’ll get your updates via email, which is either an awful idea or a fantastic one: if you don’t have G+, you’ll get your inbox spammed by your friends who do, so that could motivate more people to join, or it could just annoy them.  Maybe both. It’s a little risky, but if people surrender and sign up for G+, it’ll be a big win for Goog.

Update: I received this via IM from a friend today:

why is google+ spamming me when they know I’m not a member and I can’t join? load of crock

One side effect I noticed: I’m hesitant to share things with my Circles, because I don’t want my friends who aren’t on G+ to get emails for every little thing I share.  It’s okay on Facebook because people are already there, and if they happen to see my update, that’s cool, but most things I post to Facebook, I do NOT want to send to my friends via email, or I would have done that in the first place.  Once all my friends are on G+, it’s not an issue, but that’s a long ways off.  Until then, I may have to “unfriend” my contacts who are not on G+ just to avoid spamming them, or I’ll have to post things as “Public” without posting to a Circle.

The Toolbar

Once you’re on Google+, you’ll see a toolbar on any of the common Google sites you go to – Gmail, search, Docs, Picasa, etc.  There’s a “Share” button at the right of the bar, so you can easily add things to your Stream from any of those sites.  A smart move, and it should kick start sharing.

G+ has some neat features, but I’m not sure how Google is trying to position it.  It appears to be a direct Facebook competitor, as I really can’t imagine myself using both for very long.  It’s just too much sharing, too much work to maintain friends lists, too much seeing what my friends are up to, and too much “hanging out.”

I really wanted to see Google tie their tools together as a part of G+.  All of Goog’s consumer tools still exist as independent entities, when most should be tied into one interface.  Picasa is tied in (to some extent), but Gmail and Calendar are totally separate still, which is unfortunate.  If Google could reposition G+ as the only site you need to go to for your daily communication needs, they’d have a leg up on Facebook which is struggling mightily to integrate email functionality. Hopefully they’ll move this way soon.

Hangouts

Hangouts are audio/video chat rooms. I suppose Google wanted to be clever by giving them a hip, in-your-face name, but it’s often rather confusing.  How’s this for clear product messaging: “Hangouts: Have fun with all your circles using your live webcam.”  Oy.  I started “hanging out” by myself, and it posted to my stream that “Joel Downs is hanging out.”  When I finished the experiment, it told my friends “Joel Downs hung out.”  I’m sure my friends were fascinated.  It’s even better than the inane Facebook Places updates like “Joel Downs is at Starbucks.”

Sparks

Sparks are interests.  You type in things you’re interested in, and Google recommends content for you.  I assume it’ll put recent recommendations in my stream, but I haven’t seen that yet.  It could be a nice way to keep on top of topics you’re interested in if it works well, akin to Google News Alerts or Yahoo’s Alerts.  We’ll see.  Why does Goog call them “Sparks”?  I have no idea.  They definitely built in a bit of a learning curve.

Other Stuff

I won’t cover the Photos or Profile today…neither section seems particularly robust or different.

Summary

Google has a good product here, but so far I think it’s too little too late.  Google+ just isn’t well differentiated from Facebook, and it certainly isn’t any easier to use, in fact, the terminology alone may relegate its usage to a younger audience that digs the hipness and wants to spend the time to figure out how to use it.  It’s much more interesting and robust than Google Buzz was (not a high bar), but it’s hard to picture many people either 1) switching away from Facebook or 2) using both G+ and Facebook regularly.  My guess is that G+ will attract the same demographic as Gmail, but will have a hard time going beyond that.  Google will have to do some serious work to woo Facebook users, and they need to do it fast.

Yahoo finally understands the power of Mail, Google doesn’t

screenshot6Over the past few months, Yahoo has been quietly adding more and more features to their webmail solution, Yahoo Mail.  For three years (from the sidelines), I’ve been hoping they would do this, and finally it looks like they’re getting the message.  Perhaps it’s Carol Bartz’ leadership, I don’t know, but Yahoo is finally polishing and rebuilding the biggest weapon in their arsenal.

In the past few months, Yahoo Mail has added support for large attachments (via Drop.io), added various Facebook-like “apps” from companies like Evite, Flickr, and Paypal, and they acquired Xoopit to improve their photo sharing and sending abilities.  They even started allowing Facebook style “status casting” which is equivalent to the Facebook news feed, allowing people to keep track of what their friends and family are up to.

These moves show a new, long-overdue dedication to email.  Yahoo has 350 million email users worldwide, and they have finally realized that email is their Trojan horse that will let them cross-promote and upgrade users to all of their other media properties and services.  Everyone needs email, and very little innovation has happened in the email space in the last 15 years.  If Yahoo can innovate and make social networking and messaging readily accessible and imminently usable for their already enormous audience within an email context, they have a chance to create some major buzz and hold off the Facebooks of the world that are out to eat their lunch.  Just imagine if Facebook started offering actual email addresses – Yahoo would face a serious threat.  Yahoo already has massive reach, all they need to hold off Facebook are tools that let that massive audience connect with each other.

The biggest question I have is whether it is too late.  Gmail was integrated with its IM solution from Day 1, but Yahoo Mail still isn’t well tied to Yahoo Messenger.  Why weren’t my Yahoo Messenger contacts automatically added to my Mail address book so I can see my friends updates?  This is a huge oversight and has hamstrung adoption of the Yahoo news feeds and status updates, but I’m hopeful Yahoo will move to correct this.

Also interesting is that Yahoo is innovating on its email solution while Google is reinventing email entirely with Google Wave.  I haven’t had the chance to say this often, but Yahoo’s approach is right, and Google’s is wrong.  Google Wave is too innovative, too paradigm shifting to gain widespread adoption in the next few years, and unfortunately it’s the kind of product that isn’t worth anything until the people you’re communicating with use it too.  Yahoo, on the other hand, is innovating on email incrementally, making their interfaces more streamlined, and making ancillary features like attachments and photo sharing more native and intuitive.  If Yahoo can get the social piece right, too, they may start grabbing headlines with their features again rather than for their deal-making and constant games of executive musical chairs.

Facebook should not be afraid of Google Wave…yet

Google today announced the impending release of their new…product, Google Wave.  I hesitate when describing it, because it’s actually pretty tough to categorize.  Techcrunch has a thorough writeup of the functionality and Mashable has a brief of their own, but neither does much analysis, so let me try to summarize.

Google Wave is:

  • Like email, but won’t work (navtively) with existing email
  • Like IM, but it isn’t an application
  • Like Facebook messaging, but without Facebook
  • Like Facebook’s application platform, but without Facebook
  • Like Twitter, but without a public-facing feed
  • Like IRC, but less temporal

Does that help?  Maybe not.

Let me try to sum it up in a positioning statement that I’m making up based on the proposed featureset:

Google Wave is a web-based messaging system that helps people communicate, share, and collaborate with friends, family, and business contacts both in real-time and asynchronously.

If we look at it in these terms, Google Wave is not only extremely ambitious but is also set squarely against Facebook.

You may consider this comparison invalid because Google Wave has so many features that Facebook doesn’t and Facebook has a ton of features that Wave doesn’t, but users don’t look at features, they look at problems the product solves for them.  Is it filling a need that isn’t met right now, or is it filling the need better than existing services?  It’s unlikely that people would give up Facebook for Wave, so the question for Google comes down to: will they use both? You can ask the same question about Wave vs. email, IM, and Twitter.

In order to think Wave will be successful, you have to think the problems it solves are important.  Here are some of the problems it purports to address:

This is just a start of what they want it to do.  One of the creators, Lars, said of Wave,

“My vision is to have the one communication tool. I want all the use cases to be covered. We made up ideas of what Wave could be used for — negotiating contracts, writing articles. Lots of things.”

Is it trying to do too much?  Very likely.

I fear that Wave breaks one of Google’s own product development tenets: fail often, fail early (or maybe fail early, fail often, I don’t remember, but I know there was a lot of failing involved.)  This project has been in development since 2007 and has 50 developers working on it, and it already has a plethora of what we product managers call “would-be-nice” features.  I encourage Google to make sure the core features work and release this thing as soon as possible to see if people like it at all.  If they like it, THEN add the silly extras like real-time wiki-style collaborative editing that lets you see what other people type as they type it.

I do like the concept behind Wave in how it aims to unify communication, but I want to see that happen in a way that simplifies my life.  Read through the comments on the TechCrunch article, and you’ll see that most people think it looks too complicated.  As a contrast, no one who saw the iPod or iPhone unveilings thought either device would complicate their lives – they are both beautiful in their simplicity, and that’s why they sell by the boatloads.  Google will have an uphill battle marketing this product until they can show an average user how it will simplify their lives. If they clear this hurdle, Facebook needs to watch out.