Why do Facebook Features Fizzle?

Wednesday May 29th 2013 by Mike Elgan
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Facebook users won't try new features--unless Facebook forces them to.

Since Google launched the Google+ social network as an invitation-only service, Facebook has announced and shipped a series of bold new features.

Some are clearly designed to copy or match Google services, others to exceed it and enable Facebook to do things Google can’t do.

When first unveiled, these features often sound full of promise.

But then, again and again, the features fail. Users ignore them. Everybody forgets about them. And they kind of fade away into oblivion.

Why do Facebook’s new features seem to go nowhere?

Facebook Video Calling

In July, 2011, Facebook announced the integration of Microsoft’s popular Skype video-capable VoIP service. The move was a great response to Google’s popular Hangouts video service, which supports video calls and phone calls with up to ten users simultaneously.

With more than 600 million existing users, Skype was a tested, known service made super convenient through one-click access from Facebook chat.

Few used it. In fact, I would be surprised if a majority of Facebook users are even aware that it ever existed.

Facebook as a Media Platform

In September of 2011, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a breathtaking range of content-related partnerships that was to transform the social network into a “primary entertainment hub,” according to The New York Times.

Users could now discover, play and share music from Spotify, MOG, Rdio, Rhapsody, Turntable.fm, VEVO, Slacker, Songza, TuneIn, iheartradio, Deezer, Earbits, Jelli, and Mixcloud from within their News Feeds—not to mention TV and movies from Netflix, Hulu, Blockbuster, IMDB, Dailymotion and Flixter and news content from The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Slate, the Associated Press, Reuters, Yahoo News and others.

But The Times was wrong: Facebook as a “primary entertainment hub” never happened. The revolution in social entertainment on Facebook was forgotten.

Facebook Timeline

Facebook also announced its Timeline interface in September of 2011. Some users loved it; others groused. But Facebook didn’t give users a chance to ignore it. The company allowed users to upgrade to the new interface until earlier this year when they flipped a switch and made Timeline the interface for everybody.

I believe the Timeline was one of Facebook’s successes. They should have simply replaced the old interface with Timeline for everybody right away, and saved themselves from a lot of bad press.

In general, Facebook is a lot more appealing with the Timeline and, of course, everybody uses it.

Facebook Poke

Facebook launched its Poke app in December of 2012. Poke sends messages that can expire after 1, 3, 5 or 10 seconds depending on the sender’s choice.

The app was reportedly created in less than two weeks in response to the wildly popular Snapchat app, which enables users to create pictures, videos and now texts and drawings and send them to friends’ phones where they’ll auto-delete in 10 seconds.

It appears, however, that Poke is having no impact. User data suggests a tiny bump when Poke first launched, followed by a reduction in users.

For example, from December to January, usage on iOS appears to have dropped from just under 2 percent of iPhone users to less than 1 percent. Snapchat, on the other hand, is experiencing strong user growth.

Facebook Listen to Music with Friends

Facebook announced in January that users could listen to the same song at the same time via the chat feature.

As with many Facebook features, almost nobody uses this, but the reason is clear: Both users must be on the same music service and want to sit there on Facebook listening to a song at the same time as someone else. It’s a minority of a minority.

Facebook Suggested Posts

I have no idea whether Facebook’s Suggested Posts “feature,” added in October of 2012, is a business success or failure for Facebook. But I do hear a lot of users complaining about it.

Facebook has had advertising for a long time—off to the side. “Suggested Posts,” branded to advertisers as “homerun” and similar to a sister feature called “Suggested Pages,” is problematic for users on four counts.

First, “Suggested Posts” are right there on the timeline, as big as a regular post.

Second, they’re designed to look like posts from friends, apparently to fool users into paying more attention to them. Some users can identify them as ads right away. Others take a few seconds to figure it out. And still others never know these fake posts are in fact paid advertising.

The third problem with “Suggested Posts” is that the name is a lie. Nobody is suggesting the post. It’s an ad labeled in a way to fool users into thinking a friend “suggested” it.

And fourth, “Suggested Posts” are not coming from advertisers the user has “Liked.” This fact is especially egregious given that most of the posts from companies each user has liked are blocked by Facebook’s noise-filter algorithm. It’s a double-whammy of user non-control: Facebook now stops you from seeing the commercial posts you asked to see while forcing you to see ones you didn’t ask to see.

Facebook Graph Search

Zuckerberg announced Graph Search semantic search feature in January of this year as a beta, then as a limited release in March. Four months on, I still don’t have access to it and neither do a majority of Facebook users.

When announced, it sounded like a powerful search feature at last, although one that could be abused. For some reason, Graph Search is a flop so far.

To the extent that it's available and works as advertised, Graph Search is seen as a potential privacy invasion or, at least, something that requires special care to protect one’s privacy.

But many users report that the actual abilities of Graph Search don’t match the demo, saying that it’s not that useful.

In fact, if you Google the words Facebook Graph Search and sort by, say, the most recent week, the results are filled with requests for how to remove it, sites making fun of it or articles about how dangerous it is.

With a limited rollout, it’s still unclear whether Graph Search will be useful to ordinary users, or merely serve as a powerful tool for stalkers, con artists and opportunists.

Facebook Home

Facebook’s most recent bold announcement on April 4 is Home, the user interface for select phones high-end Android phones that places a persistent Facebook layer on top of all other applications. The flagship HTC First phone comes with Home as a default interface layer. (A limited version of the interface executes within Facebook’s iOS app.)

Facebook Home sounded like an incredibly good idea. Facebook fans got a “screensaver” on their phones’ home screens made up of their friends’ photos, and they could keep chats with friends going on top of other phone apps.

But like so many other Facebook features, Home is another flop. Carriers are backing away from it and users are rejecting it. (AT&T famously dropped support for the HTC First “Facebook phone” just weeks after its launch.) Facebook itself is reportedly telling European carriers to “hold off” on introductions of the HTC First.

Why Do Facebook Features Flop?

All these failures add up to a clear pattern: Every major new feature not forced on users by Facebook (such as the Timeline and “Suggested Posts”) completely fails.

Facebook simply can’t get users to try new things. But why?

I think the explanation can be found in how users view Facebook in the first place. I’ve found that most Facebook users don’t really view Facebook as a service they enjoy for the features and functions, but simply as a passive location where their family and friends are, a kind of public facility.

It’s not like a hotel where users are looking for services. It’s more like a public beach where they just want it to stay the way it always was.

On the one hand, users can’t be lured away easily by rival social networks with better features because users don’t care. But on the other, Facebook can’t achieve all its monetization goals through increased engagement with new features because, again, users don’t care.

Facebook users who do care about features above all leave Facebook and move to Google+, Twitter, Pinterest and other smaller social networks. Although the number of users leaving Facebook is a small percentage, these are more likely to be the highly desirable active, engaged users.

That leaves Facebook with a concentrated apathy demographic, the non-using user segment. And that skewed user base becomes even harder to sell new features to. (It’s not great for advertising, either.)

For the past three years, every significant new feature Facebook has introduced with the exception of Timeline has flopped, fizzled and failed.

If Facebook is to succeed in the long run, the company will simply have to figure out how to convince users to try new features. Because if they don’t, Facebook will increasingly become the Internet’s geriatric ward, a relic of the Internet’s past.

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