CIO

Blog: Finding Out What's Wrong With the New Facebook (With a Little Help From My Friends)

The redesign of Facebook (now commonly known as the New Facebook) has been met with negative reviews from users and the mainstream press that have reported their grievances. There was even a sizable Facebook Group who petitioned the company to revert back to the Old Facebook (an exercise in futility, as the changes recently became permanent).

But what's the problem exactly? Is it merely an aesthetic issue? A functional one? I sampled my own Facebook "friends" (colleagues and friends) on the service to find out.

Some of the responses shed some light on differing expectations between my friends who grew up with the service in high school and college (they tended to be quite unhappy with it), and those old(er) pals of mine, mostly in the professional world, who seemed more accepting and even happy with it.

CIO magazine writer Jarina D'Auria, 22, an unapologetic member of Generation Y, has been on Facebook since 2004 (the year it launched). She understandably has a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Most notably, she was temporarily banned from the service when Facebook mistakenly thought she was a spammer.

On the new Facebook, she particularly disliked how it combines the Wall postings with other news feed activities such as status updates or news that you joined a group or added an application. This, as she put it, makes it look "all jumbled and confusing for navigation purposes. If you wanted to look at someone's wall — which is something most Facebook people like to read — it's harder to see where it is because it's in there with a bunch of other stuff."

Matt Babineau, 24, a computer engineer whom I went to college with and has been on Facebook since the beginning, echoed D'Auria's sentiments about the mixing of content to one feed as overwhelming.

"The newest thing thats annoying is that front page that just tells you everything," he says. "It's almost as if they realized people were stalking other people on Facebook and wanted to help initiate the stalking. It's a bit ridiculous the amount of stuff they tell you."

But the new tabular environment and the moving all activity updates into one area is precisely the reason Jonathan Yarmis, a 53-year-old emerging technology analyst from AMR Research, liked the New Facebook. "Status updates — a la Twitter — are now grouped together in a way that makes sense rather than having these different lifestreams different places on the old Facebook," he says. "I can easily see what's going on with my friends and groups and, for that reason alone, this is an improvement. I find I'm actually checking Facebook more with the new design than before, which is probably the most important metric for them and for me."

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Yarmis' comment centers around what many believe was the strategy of Facebook with the redesign: as Michael Arrington wrote on Techcrunch, it seems that Facebook wanted to make the site look more like FriendFeed, an aggregator social networking site (pretty much RSS on steroids) that allows friends to share content with one another by showing their activities on bookmarking sites like del.icio.us or status updates on Twitter.

While I definitely agree with Arrington's point that this might have been Facebook's aim with the new design, it's not clear that this was a good strategy yet given the negative reviews by users, especially Facebook's younger users, who I'd argue, even given the site's broader appeal, are the site's base voters.

So far, the idea that social technologies, from a design standpoint, should go the way of a Friendfeed or other flow apps has been more the insular belief of tech bloggers, journalists and social media evangelists (and now Facebook designers) rather than normal social networking users themselves. While the former group might have felt reaffirmed in their opinion by the Facebook redesign, it's not clear to me that the mainstream audience (if these new anti-New Facebook groups are any indication) agree.

Simply put: If 20 somethings who are on Facebook by the millions don't think it's a good design (and because they dwarf the Friendfeed and Twitter users of the world in numbers), their opinion might matter more.

One person who has thought a lot about the opinions of the young masses on the Web and comparing them with the older generation is Don Tapscott, the Wikinomics author who is writing a book "Growing Up Digital" set to come out later this year. Tapscott, who is in his early 60s, replied to my Facebook thread and expressed praise for Facebook's improved privacy settings. He also likes the emphasis on information instead of the profile page itself. "Among other things, it takes me right to what's new instead of my own profile," he wrote.

All of the people I have mentioned, however, deal with technology pretty directly for their livelihoods, so I was curious to see what a non-technologist thought. My old high school buddy Michael Zesk, 24, seemed the perfect candidate. A religious studies major in college, he is teaching right now at a school in Mongolia.

"I don't really know or care about most of the new features," he says. "All I know is that as a casual user, I no longer know how to easily access the content that I use. Also, it seems to be quite a bit slower."

Zesk's response highlighted what most normal tech consumers look for (and what companies like Apple have never wavered from): it often comes down to aesthetics and ease of use. Despite the Facebook brass contending the new Facebook achieves that goal, he, like others, clearly thinks it fell short short.

Anecdotally, I think that says a lot, since Facebook aims to hit a broad audience. With that in mind, should we all surrender to the flow or stream-like apps the evangelists (and Facebook) are pushing, or should we (perhaps futilely) wish for the days of old?