A List Apart

Nishant Kothary on the Human Web

The REAL Real Problem with Facebook

We agree on few things, but on the topic of Facebook, we seem unanimous: we hate it. From our fatigue with the inevitable popularity contest that is Fakebooking to recurring posts about Facebook’s dated and confusing user experience (on Facebook, no less), there’s no shortage of reasons for why Facebook sucks. I share in many of these complaints.

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So, in the spirit of the new year’s resolution many of us likely made—spend less time on Facebook—it may be time to go beyond the symptoms to understand a deeper issue behind much of our Facebook angst.

Many faces

Your Facebook profile is meant to represent the “real-life you” as much as possible. Everything, from the types of information Facebook encourages you to furnish about yourself (political affiliations, religious views, etc.) to the focus on presenting your life as a timeline, confirms this.

Successfully integrating yourself into the Facebook world, then, relies on you being willing (or able) to provide a clear answer to the question, “Who are you?” And therein lies the rub.

Speaking for myself, the only thing that’s static about me is my constant state of change. It ripples through the many sides of my identity. Or, as danah boyd named it in her eye-opening master’s thesis, Faceted Id/Entity: Managing Representation in a Digital World: my multifaceted self.

My multifaceted self is what makes me feel like I’m two or three, hell, several different people. Because we all are. We all have the ability to present different facets of ourselves depending on the context: a phenomenon known as code switching.

Switch up the interface

Anil Dash recently wrote an insightful piece on code switching in the context of teaching kids programming, wherein he offered the most succinct illustration of the concept:

President Obama shaking hands in different ways

All of us code switch all the time—often without conscious effort; sometimes, unfortunately, out of necessity. It’s essential not only to interacting with people we’re just meeting, but with those whom we know, too: our family, colleagues, and friends. For most of us, our Facebook “friends” aren’t people we’re just meeting for the first time, they’re people we’ve built some sort of relationship context with in the real world.

A colleague from my last job, my brother, the couple down the street, a cousin I last saw ten years ago, that girl I met while traveling through Italy, an ex-girlfriend: these and countless more are the contexts we share with our Facebook friends. In the real world, we would depend on code switching to interact with these individuals. In boyd’s words, “By understanding the context of the environment, people know which aspects of their social identity to perform.”

For instance, in real life I wouldn’t flash just any of my friends with a video of my dog licking coconut butter off silverware set to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” without first assessing the context I share with them: their sense of humor, current mood, squeamishness about animals, the nature of our relationship, and myriads of other things.

On Facebook you can kiss such nuanced interaction goodbye. Our broadcasts go out to everyone irrespective of context.

Let’s not be facetious

If you just responded with, “Well, you could create a list and fine-tune your permissions,” you made a panda very sad.

A friend’s like on an anti-gay-rights page. A comment making fun of your musical tastes. A vegetarian friend linking to an article about the evils of eating meat. A complaint about how Apple (or Facebook?) can’t innovate anymore. A picture of some friends enjoying a get-together that you weren’t invited to. The incessant posting of cat, dog, and kid pictures. We weren’t exactly meant to see these, but they weren’t exactly hidden from us, either. One man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison: these and a variety of other un-code-switched signals in our news feeds cumulatively etch away at our morales.

What makes code switching work isn’t the ability to pick who you put at the other end of the interaction. After all, that would assume we all have single identities and can be categorized easily. Lists, even when they’re shaped like Circles (a valiant effort, it’s worth saying), barely solve the real problem. On the contrary, code switching is about your ability to modify your behavior to best suit any interaction.

The alternative to broadcasting your unfiltered multifaceted self is presenting a more dilute version, one that’s tempered or, dare I say, code switched, to appease all of your Facebook friends. This version doesn’t stand for anything, likes everything, shares conservatively, and presents a diabetes-inducing timeline of studio-quality photos. While this can be a more successful strategy on Facebook, it can leave both the broadcaster and the receivers feeling let down because everyone, especially those who know the broadcaster well in real life, can see the big, fat elephant—reality—in the corner.

This leaves us feeling stuck in a seemingly endless struggle between being our true or dilute selves. And as time goes by, this struggle seems to not only be eroding our relationships with our friends, but also with the medium. It’s a sign that a change is overdue.

Let’s face it

The early premise for Facebook was a great idea—a great design, speaking of design in the broadest sense. But great design can often be the silent killer, as Bill Buxton writes: “Great design takes hold, gets traction, and takes on its own inertia—which makes it hard to replace. And replace it we must: Everything reaches its past-due date.”

Facebook’s design—really, the design of public and semi-private virtual interaction spaces on the web—is starting to feel like it’s reached its past-due date. And replacing it is going to take much more than flat UI, faster notifications, better animations, responsiveness, bigger and higher density screens, better web standards, native apps, and thousands of other things that we’ve already written about.

It’s going to require us to approach a far more elusive problem, and one that’s at the center of design: understanding humans better.

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