In my last post, I gave Facebook’s new subscribe feature a bit of a hard time. Clearly an effort to play catch up with G+ and Twitter’s more public social networking capabilities (and thus, better opportunities to use heaps of social data for public search relevance and, thus better opportunities for targeted advertising), I still wanted to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt, and dive into using the new features as if I’ve never touched another social network in my life.
At first, I was confused by the subscribe feature. Why did some people with 0 public updates on the site have “subscribe” called out on their profiles, while others with tons of public content did not have a subscribe option? And why wasn’t anyone subscribing to my profile — wasn’t I as worthy of following as some of the others who were being recommended to me by Facebook because my friends were subscribing to them?
It took a while to figure out that I had to actually opt in for the subscribe feature. It’s a weird step to have to take given that Facebook already gives you privacy controls for all of your content, so in theory subscribing to anyone’s profile should not change anything unless they chose to post public content. But then I realized this accomplishes two things for Facebook — one, if anyone complains about privacy they can say it’s an opt-in feature, and two, it makes those of us who opt in to allowing subscriptions from the general public more likely to update publicaly.
Ok, so after years upon years of maintaining my Facebook account as my one true “social” network (as in, people I actually interact with in real life, or have interacted with at some point in the past) I decided to open the doors up, just a bit, and see what this new subscribe feature was really all about. I also subscribed to a few people that Facebook recommended to me, including a few reporters, and a bunch of the Facebook team to see how they were using the feature. As noted in my last post, I subscribed to Mark Zuckerberg and was disappointed in his lack of updates.
In the first 24 hours or so of my making my profile able to be subscribed to, I gained about 15 followers. I’d estimate that 10 of those were random men from India, three were from the Middle East somewhere, and two were people that found me through social contacts. I put up a few public posts — mostly comments about Facebook subscribe that were too geeky for my normal friends on FB, and felt bad about spamming them with the commentary, but only felt it was ok since they’re on Facebook too and probably are looking to me, the Silicon Valley friend, to explain what on earth is going on. At least my mother is.
Then, tonight, the seas parted and Mark Zuckerberg posted a deeply enlightening public status update:
Yes, you read that right — Mark Zuckerberg is getting ready for the big F8 conference. There’s a safe status update if I ever saw one, and one that likely wouldn’t spark any debate or comments… I mean, who would even like a post as simple as that…?
Of course, Mark Z. has a fan club the size of a country or two, so he’s going to get a few likes on everything he posts.
A few turned into 10,000 within the first few minutes of his post. I jumped in to the conversation around that time and left a fairly basic comment in response to one other reply about how crazy it is Mark received 10k likes so quickly (as that comment was already at 400 likes, and that amount of likes on a random comment that quickly was crazy too).
Within seconds after posting my comment, crazy things started to happen. Like some sort of Facebook puberty where I started feeling new and awkward things. Immediately, I got notifications that people were subscribing to me. Tens, then dozens, then nearly 100 — mostly men — mostly from India — were flooding my recent updates. They liked my comments. They started liking and commenting on my photos. And the comments kept coming. And coming. And coming…
Soon, I realized this public status would kill my social relationships with my friends unless FB fixed the noise problem. I don’t mind strangers looking at some of my content (that I choose to make public), but I don’t think I can handle thousands of fans liking everything I say. Granted, in the early days of the interwebs I would have been flattered to have such a following, but today I value Facebook as the one place on the web where I have my social contacts and my interactions with them aren’t flooded with noise from other people I don’t know who are leaving random comments that make little sense.
Perhaps all these new subscribers from Asia and the Middle East they think that I’m best friends with Mark Z., and can help get them jobs or other contacts (for the record, I’ve never met him, though I do have a few distant acquaintances that work at Facebook.) Perhaps they just like subscribing to a random female that is as nerdy as they are… (which has its benefits, best comment of the night [(clearly) sic] Mradul Gupta told me “u luk lyk Kate Winslet!”
Flattery aside (a woman can only take so much) what will this do to my social network? I’m most concerned about missing important updates from friends — content that I actually want to engage with — and instead will be buried by subscriber comments that are more like this Mahmoud Odeh (who must have subscribed to me thinking he was subscribing to Mark Z.) writes “why am here ?” on my latest public update, which 23 people have “liked” so far.
Now, this issue isn’t limited to Facebook. G+ suffers the same problem, but it’s easier to block interactions with people following you unless you want to see them. Facebook subscribe suffers an even bigger problem, though — people don’t understand the difference between subscribe and friend. On G+, you basically subscribe to everyone, but on different levels (or circles.) On Facebook, you automatically subscribe to your friends (though you can unsubscribe, which is weird, though I guess it’s mostly like hiding their posts but still being their friend) and you also can subscribe to anyone else on the site who has opted in for public subscriptions. What’s weird and confusing is that people who subscribe to you then feel like they should have the right to be your “friend.” There’s nothing more that ruins the Facebook experience than receiving hundreds of friend requests and not being able to dig out the real friends that have requested to connect with you. With so many friend requests, it’s easy to miss those real requests, and while your public social network is growing with strangers, your real social network is stinted.
By writing that one comment on Mark Zuckerberg’s post, I went from 16 subscribers to 95 subscribers in less than an hour. When I started writing this post, I had 82 subscribers and now I’m up to 95. I am also receiving about 10 friend requests every 30 minutes. I’m afraid to go to sleep and wake up with a few hundred friend requests.
Meanwhile, I have had some good interactions with the feature. Blake Ross, Director of Product at Facebook posted a basic “introduce yourself” post on his wall, about six hours before I responded. By that time he already had 174 responses (many were just complaints about missing features on the site), and I decided to write up a quick bio and see if it would get a response. Blake — very quickly — liked my post. That was a cool interaction. But then, I was wondering what happens next. Here I am, feeling like this is a genuine person that I’d like to follow, and connect with. I decided to send Blake a friend request, which was probably the wrong move in terms of the concepts of the product, but it is basically my reaching out and saying that I want to be connected with him above all the noise.
What G+ does well is it gives you many layers of connection — you can put random followers in an ignore circle and they’ll never know they are being ignored, but they’ll stop bugging you. You can develop relationships with people who are interesting and have interests in common by selecting to surface their content and read the circles you put them in. On Facebook, theoretically this works almost the same way, minus the specific and transparent circles. It’s just hard to believe that meaningful relationships with anyone can be formed when they have thousands upon thousands of subscribers. That’s why my experience on Twitter went from good to awful — when I had 2k subscribers it was wonderful, at 10k subscribers I barely use it. I really don’t want Facebook to turn into that experience. I’m hoping it doesn’t have to, and that the team there will figure out the right way to implement this feature as they see how users take to it over time.
In any case, I perceive the scenerio to play out as follows — either I continue my usual routine and pander towards my “real friends” (ie the non tech types) and update infrequently with nerd-free, unique things about my life posts; or I build up my public following and at the same time force all of my friends to unsubscribe from my updates (since, conveniently now Facebook makes it easy for my friends to hide me or chose to see less of my posts by unsubscribing vs. the hidden hide posts from this person feature, which I’m guessing statistically didn’t get much use.) The only way to play the game right is complicated — put all friends into lists and block public updates from friends. That seems slightly counterproductive, but without that move I think I’m going to lose a lot of the friends that matter, and gain a lot that can’t spell and are still wondering how they ended up seeing my status updates.