The announcement that the Washington Post Company was moving its Facebook app Social Reader off the social network and onto a standalone site is the latest example in a long string of failures by Facebook to keep a balance between what users want and what businesses and organizations want. This follows similar news from The Guardian a couple of days ago. As with most things that Facebook has tried since 2009 to do to grow its relevance outside its own closed garden, things started off really well and went south very quickly.
Rewind to a year ago when Facebook first tied in its open graph technology to allow major publications like the Washington Post (plus their 90 other publications), Yahoo News, and The Guardian to post on news feeds when Facebook users read stories. It was great for the publications. Any time one of the app users read an article on Washington Post, it was displayed on their Facebook profile wall as well as declared on the news feeds of that users friends. The traffic sent from the app was amazing to most, launching Facebook to the top of the food chain as a traffic generator for news sites.
Unfortunately for both Facebook and the publications, users hated it. They lashed out hard against Facebook, the publications, and even their own friends for flooding their news feeds with every story on certain publications that they clicked on while browsing the internet. Millions of people were posting to Facebook without even realizing it, annoying their friends who were there to see pictures of little Timmy sliding into third base instead of a list of articles that a user clicked on at some point.
Facebook reacted quickly and switched much of the passive, automated posting features of their publication apps to active sharing only. Suddenly, a major source of traffic for these publications turned into hate from Facebook users before being relegated to a minor trickle.
The giant social network is still important to publications as the traffic from active Facebook posts still accounts for good traffic, but the flood gates from the “spam apps” were closed. Just as they did with Beacon in 2009 and subsequent attempts to leverage their tremendous user base into relevance outside of their own walls, the social news apps started off strong but were shut down by the users. It doesn’t have to be like this. All Facebook has to do is stop attempting to fool their users and realize that we’re not all ignorant sheep that will go with the flow.
Transparency and the “bite-sized portion”
The underlying problem that seems to plague every attempt by Facebook to boost its importance (and revenue) is that they roll things out in big chunks. They have failed to understand that users are not ignorant. We’re not fools. Any major change, addition, or subtraction will be met with hesitation at best and anger at worst.
With Facebook, it seems that they like to serve everything all at once. They have no sense of subtly. They come up with an idea, develop it, roll it out, and wait for the backlash which seems to come out every single time.
If they would take a respectful posture towards their users, they will have a much higher chance of success with their launches. All too often, they release changes to their platform without telling anyone. All too often, they drop big changes into the crowd and wait for the mess to start while hoping that it slips by unnoticed.
It never does.
If they would simply open up to the public and give users complete understanding about what they plan on launching, they would be much more successful. More importantly, if they would roll things out slowly in bite-sized chunks rather than all at once the way they normally roll things out, they would be able to make adjustments to their developments before getting the mass backlash that often plagues their new features. The social news apps could have been very successful had they not bombed their users with it the way they did. Rather than launch it and hope for the best, they should have tested it in limited markets, taken the feedback, and adjusted.
Today, the awesome potential of the social news apps has been completely lost because they made as many people as possible unhappy with it from the start. Had they rolled it out slowly, they would have found the happy point between spam and uselessness. They could have had a set of apps that were a little successful in the beginning and more successful over time as they tweaked it based upon user feedback and traffic levels sent. Instead they had something that made a splash but sunk quickly.