Is Facebook losing its edge?

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Copy of sa teen online AP Young adults - people 18 to 29 - were the most likely age group to see and undergo online harassment.

New York - Has Facebook become less fun? That’s something many users – especially those in their teens and early twenties – are asking themselves as they wade through endless posts, photos “liked” by people they barely know and spur-of-the moment friend requests. Has it all become too much of a chore? Are the important life events of your closest loved ones drowning in a sea of banana-slicer jokes?

“When I first got Facebook I literally thought it was the coolest thing to have. If you had a Facebook you kind of fit in better, because other people had one,” says Rachel Fernandez, 18, who first signed on to the site four or five years ago.

And now? “Facebook got kind of boring.”

Chatter about Facebook’s demise never seems to die down, whether it’s talk of “Facebook fatigue”, or grousing about how the social network lost its cool once grandma joined. The Pew Research Centre’s Internet and American Life Project found that about 61 percent of Facebook users had taken a break from the site for reasons that range from “too much gossip and drama” to “boredom”. Some respondents said there simply wasn’t enough time in their day for Facebook.

If Facebook’s users leave, or even check in less frequently, its revenue growth would suffer. The company, which depends on targeted advertising for most of the money it makes, booked revenue of $5.1 billion (nearly R45.9bn) last year, up from $3.7bn a year earlier.

But so far, for every person who has left permanently, several new people have joined up. Facebook has more than 1 billion users around the world. Of these, 618 million sign in every day.

Indeed, Fernandez hasn’t abandoned Facebook. Though the high-school student doesn’t look at her News Feed – the cascade of posts, photos and viral videos from her nearly 1 800 friends – she still uses Facebook’s messaging feature to reach out to people she knows.

Fernandez uses Facebook in the same way that people use e-mail or the telephone. But she prefers using Facebook to communicate because everyone she knows is there. That’s a sign that Facebook’s biggest asset may also be its biggest challenge.

 

“We have never seen a social space that actually works for everybody,” says Danah Boyd, who studies youth culture, the internet and social media as a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. “People don’t want to hang out with everybody they have ever met.”

Might Facebook go the way of e-mail? Those who came of age in the “You’ve got mail” era can reminisce fondly about arriving home from school and checking their e-mail accounts to see if anyone sent them an electronic message. Boyd, 35, recalls being a teenager and “thinking e-mail is the best thing ever”.

Few people share that sentiment these days. Georgia Institute of Technology professor Ian Bogost recently listed e-mail alongside “blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn” in a Facebook post.

“I was just going through my daily e-mail routine, reflecting on the fact that it feels like batting down a wall of locusts.”

Although e-mail has gone from after-school treat to a dull routine in the space of 20 years, no one is ready to ring its death knell just yet. And similarly, Facebook’s lost lustre doesn’t necessarily foreshadow its obsolescence.

In early March, Facebook unveiled a big redesign to address some of its users’ most pressing gripes. The retooling is intended to get rid of the clutter that’s been a complaint among users.

Facebook surveys its users regularly about their thoughts on the site. Facebook user-experience researcher Jane Leibrock says that about a year ago she noticed people were complaining about “clutter” in their feeds.

Leibrock asked them what they meant. It turns out that the different types of content flowing through people’s News Feeds – links, ads, photos, status updates, things people “liked” or commented on – were “making it difficult to focus on any one thing. It might have even been discouraging them from finding new content.”

The new design seeks to address the issue. There is a distinct feed for “all friends”, another for different groups of friends, one just for photos, and one for pages that users follow. Lead engineer on the new design Chris Struhar says the new feeds give people a way to see everything that’s going on.

“The (number) of stories you have available to see has continued to increase. We now try to give you more control over what stories you see in your feed.”

With that kind of control, the company hopes people will spend more time on the site and share more information about themselves so companies can target them better with advertisements.

Paul Friedman, a 59-year-old dentist in New York City, says he’s using Facebook less now than when he first signed on four years ago, but he’s not sure if the site has “become less interesting or that I am just less interested in it”.

“I think that it might have seemed more interesting in the past because it was a new ‘forum’. Now… it takes more unique content to make it interesting.”

Friedman still uses Facebook to see if friends are organising events, like music gigs or yoga classes, or to check out interesting YouTube videos. He says seeing the same jokes reappear doesn’t really bother him.

“Ninety-nine percent of it is a waste of time. If it wasn’t for the one percent, I’d close my account.”

When it comes to people of a certain age, Friedman may be in the minority. Tammy Gordon, vice president of the AARP’s (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) social media team, says the 50-plus set is just now settling into Facebook. The organisation’s Facebook page grew from 80 000 fans to a million last year. This age group is growing the fastest because older people tend to be latecomers to Facebook.

“They are not necessarily at that point where some of the younger generation is, where they have News Feed overload.”

Robert Worden, who is 62 and has nearly 1 100 friends on Facebook, isn’t overwhelmed. He says he got on Facebook two or three years ago primarily to establish a relationship with his estranged son, whom he hadn’t seen for a quarter century before he found him on Facebook.

Worden says Facebook is his “major communication tool to the world. Other people use news and I don’t find the nightly news or daily news to be adequate. On Facebook I can actually hear from people who are living in the places where things are happening, and I can get instant information.”

Daniel Singer, 13, says on his public Facebook profile he enjoys “designing beautiful user interfaces and sitting down at my desk and creating great iOS apps”.

Last year, the eighth-grader created YouTell, a site that lets people ask for anonymous feedback from friends. You can use Facebook to log in, or e-mail.

As someone who designs applications, Singer calls Facebook’s graphical design “brilliant”, but thinks the average teenager wants to see new stuff. Twitter, Instagram and Pheed come to mind.

For Singer, Facebook is part of a daily routine. “Kind of like brushing your teeth.”

In the seven years since Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his Harvard dormitory, it has moved from a closed social-networking service available to college students to a place where one-seventh of the world’s population logs in at least once a month. No other social-networking fad has accomplished such a feat.

Facebook predecessors MySpace and Friendster shone brightly, but fizzled once finicky teenagers moved on to the next big thing.

To Boyd Facebook is not only a destination site, but “a technical architecture that underlies many different things”.

“It’s not about new features to lure people back in,” Boyd says.

A bigger question now, she says, is what does it mean when your company is providing a vital service, rather than “a fun, glittery object”?

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, whose for-profit content-creation site Wikia surveyed its young users about their technology habits, says teenagers “do see value in Facebook”.

“We are seeing a shift from (it being) a place to talk to each other as just part of the world – the infrastructure of the world. I don’t know if that’s to Facebook’s detriment in the long run.” – Sapa-AP

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