Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

April 3, 2013

As Facebook matures, is it losing its edge?

NEW YORK — To see what Facebook has become, look no further than the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer.

Sometime last year, people began sharing tongue-in-cheek online reviews of the banana-shaped piece of yellow plastic with their Facebook friends. Then those friends shared with their friends. Soon, after Amazon paid to promote it, posts featuring the $3.49 utensil were appearing in even more Facebook feeds.

At some point, though, the joke got old. But there it was, again and again — the banana slicer had become a Facebook version of that old knock-knock joke your weird uncle has been telling for years.

The Hutzler 571 phenomenon is a regular occurrence on the world’s biggest online social network, which begs the question: Has Facebook become less fun?

That’s something many users — especially those in their teens and early 20s — 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,” she says.

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 Center’s Internet and American Life Project recently found that some 61 percent of Facebook users had taken a hiatus from the site for reasons that range from “too much gossip and drama” to “boredom.” Some respondents said there simply isn’t enough time in their day for Facebook.

If Facebook Inc.’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 in 2012, up from $3.7 billion 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 Traverse City, Mich., high school senior doesn’t look at her News Feed, the constant 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, such as a German foreign exchange student she met two years ago.

Fernandez uses Facebook in the same way that people use email 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 email? Those who came of age in the “You’ve got mail” era can reminisce fondly about arriving home from school and checking their AOL accounts to see if anyone sent them an electronic message. Boyd, who is 35 (and legally spells her name with no capitalization), recalls being a teenager and “thinking email is the best thing ever.”

Few people share that sentiment these days. Ian Bogost, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, recently listed email 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 email routine, reflecting on the fact that it feels like batting down a wall of locusts,” Bogost says.

Although email 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 luster doesn’t necessarily foreshadow its obsolescence.

“I don’t see teenagers leaving in droves,” boyd says. “I just don’t see it being their site of passion.”

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

Facebook surveys its users regularly about their thoughts on the site. Jane Leibrock, whose title at Facebook is user experience researcher, says it was about a year ago that 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,” she says. “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.

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