Facebook, Twitter and the problem of change


3 July 2012

The past seven days have seen Twitter and Facebook experience different reactions to changes in their service offerings. In the case of the former the news is unexpectedly good, while the latter engaged in yet another firefighting exercise. Let’s start with the good news, which for some people is bad news. From this Friday status updates posted to Twitter will no longer have the option to be automatically routed to business network LinkedIn. This could be described as a way to limit functionality and antagonise a competitor, but it’s a savvy move. LinkedIn news feeds tend to be populated primarily by connection notifications and shared links, basically activity existing within and only relevant to the network. Scanning through my own news feed the small number of automated tweets I came across proved there is a time and a place for personal disclosure and LinkedIn doesn’t present an opportunity for either. A small clarification on my part, I use my own account to post news updates from our dedicated Techcentral.ie Twitter account and I look forward to seeing how our traffic fluctuates when I switch to posting manually – if it does at all.

Twitter pulling support for LinkedIn may annoy users who (still) see the website as a casual networking resource but really this is a decision that benefits everyone. For Twitter this means it can have more control over where discourses beginning on its service continue – a good thing for driving membership and keeping activity ‘in-house’. For LinkedIn, removing inappropriate or indiscreet conversations helps create a more formal, businesslike tone with a lower signal to noise ratio. News services and businesses will be annoyed but the average user (and LinkedIn itself) benefits.

Now for two examples on how not to handle relations with your user base from a source that has had enough run-ins with the general public to know better: Facebook.

Identity crisis




Facebook’s first recent faux pas was the introduction of a geolocation app that identifies people nearby a user that they *might* know but may not have added as a friend. Location data at the best of times should be treated with a special kind of delicacy – the sort afforded to babies with temper issues or unexploded ordinance – and the recent history of the Internet has some examples of terrible PR generated by services with an ‘opt-out’ rather than an ‘opt-in’ mentality. As Apple and Google can attest to, what can be used to either generate street maps or map the strength of local wireless networks can also be used in location tracking or spying on personal data.

Facebook’s experience with location data hasn’t been entirely terrible to date. Apps mapping out the location of existing connections based on what they disclose in their profiles are common but Find Friends Nearby used information from mobile application users to track their precise location and present them with a list of public profiles from other mobile users in the vicinity. Convenient or invasive? The market decided and the app was pulled within 24 hours.

Really Facebook should have seen this coming. In April an iOS app, Girls Around Me, used check-in data accumulated from the casual gaming network Foursquare and Facebook to piece together lists of female users. The outcry was swift, brutal and the developers pulled their work from the App Store voluntarily (i.e. before Apple did it for them). One wonders exactly what the thinking was behind the development process. "Girls Around Me was morally wrong and potentially endangered women… how about we learn from that experience by balancing the risk factor to make males as vulnerable to stalkers as females?" Good job guys.

Bad as Friends Around Me was, however, this pales in comparison to the decision last weekend to change users’ default e-mails to automatically assigned facebook.com ones. However things went askew when a bug saw mobile app users’ e-mail sync only Facebook.com addresses, overwriting existing addresses. Worse, many of the rerouted e-mails aren’t showing up in Facebook inboxes but in an ‘other’ subfolder below the ‘messages’ icon. Pushing unrequested e-mail addresses on users is one thing, mangling people’s address books to ensure uptake is unforgiveable.

As with all things Facebook, there is a way to undo some of the damage. A quick visit to your contact information settings lets you hide an e-mail address from public view of you so wish. As for the syncing issue, this has been put down to a ‘bug’ – although one wonders if it would be more of an experiment than an accident.

There is a certain irony between the fortunes of Twitter in Facebook in the cases. Twitter reduced functionality to improve its service while Facebook’s constant experimentation hurt it through feature bloat and a laissez faire attitude to its population. Google+ anyone?


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