Facebook once again has made a unilateral decision to completely reorganize your pages. Besides the visual changes, behind the scenes FBML (Facebook Markup Language) has been dropped officially on tabs for iFrames. Whether or not you chose preview and [sic] UPGRADE your page, it will change on March 10, 2011. What does this mean for web developers and marketers attempting to build advertising campaigns, marketing programs or customer-sensitive communities?
In the immediate scheme of things, it means more income for those on the cutting edge of Facebook design, marketing and prognostication: at least for those who have clients with deep pockets and low pain thresholds. For others it means either another scramble to keep up, or sad resignation of submitting to Facebook’s ever-changing platform based on the whims of Facebook’s internal teams of developers.
I expect to see another bump in the road for those once eager to add a Facebook page to their marketing strategy, as they will have to completely rethink how to build and manage a Facebook page. My friends in metrics and analytics are, I am sure, both excited and daunted by Facebook once more.
Facebook has adopted the “let’s launch it and see if our users like it…if they don’t, we’ll roll it back” style of agile development. They are not the only ones who do that: Google, Amazon and Ebay have been doing this for years in exactly the same way, and they are all very large sites with millions of users world-wide. But why does Facebook’s frequent changes, both large and small, seem to cause so much attention?
The promise of Social Media vs the premise
Google is an advertising platform, even though the search engine is the major gateway point. The advertising service comes up first in search results and their free Gmail platform. Amazon, even though their reader reviews are a core part of their engine sells products, and Ebay’s community-based, trusted auction system is also primarily a sales platform, where the community functionality has a very tight perimeter of actions and responses. None of these call themselves social media platforms, though they all have elements of open communication, community building and profile registration and access.
Facebook proposed a different contract with the user at its outset, and this feeds the fuel of discontent. The original proposal seemed pretty altruistic: Facebook was a place to find friends, maintain connections, share with family. It was as social as can be, and all for free. The seeds of ugly arose when privacy appeared to give way to profit. The biggest blowup came about a year ago with a major change in the Terms of Service, exposing private data from users not just to each other, but to marketers. Facebook users complained bitterly enough that Facebook finally asked the users to vote on new terms of service, and haphazardly made privacy more controllable by the individual user. But who made that privacy a given? And how long can free be really free?
Junk mail, 30-second spots and spam
>Postal systems around the world subsidize their income through the heavy discounting of bulk mail. This allows advertisers to send unsolicited material directly to your physical home, daily. There is a fragile contract of privacy, as neighborhoods are targeted by socio-economic factors. Both radio and television have had advertising to subsidize free and even paid broadcasting. Direct mail gave way to email solicitation, at best for offers and news based on subscription, at worst, spam. The only apparently private transmissions are phone calls, but that doesn’t follow the free model and so we keep our single phone conversations uninterrupted…however, we are permitted to receive unsolicited sales calls. All of these systems became large enough that governments stepped in to create and enforce controls and protections, and it is rare for massive, system-level changes to happen. And as broadcasting is more one-way than either two-way or linked through expansive peer-to-peer networking, it is expected to work in a more anonymous environment than a social network.
But the Facebook contract with its users is fragile, as the governance is difficult to enforce when Facebook uses a “my house, my rules” policy. As Facebook continues to expand its services and open its data to marketers, it will continuously ask for more access to content and data from its users, and orient its platform to suit the needs of the paying clientele. As a result, the user will give up both on-screen real estate and concessions of privacy in order to keep a free platform.
If it can stay agile enough to keep the users posting, playing games and clicking on advertising in perpetuity remains to be seen. It may go the way of MySpace, to be supplanted by another platform, or may settle into middle age with less rapid alterations in appearance and function, as it gets larger and has to support a wider user base which can only take so many rapid changes before giving up and finding a simpler, more stable environment.
Your best defense is to both maintain your own web presence (starting with your own domain, and continuing with having your site built to your needs) and keeping social media platforms within the mix.
Is the sudden change and loss of FBML frustrating? Probably so. Engaging? In an ironic twist of the use of that word in Social Media, endlessly!