Although Facebook is the world’s leading social network, within sight of a billion global users, it isn’t actually very social, if by social we mean enabling humans to interact in a manner that reflects actual human composition and behavior.

 

Humans are complex beings with multivariate responses to life’s situations. We feel happy.  We feel sad.  We feel excited.  Sometimes we even have multiple responses to one situation.  We are all the colors of the rainbow, yet Facebook boxes us into responding in black and white.  Actually, make that white only, as ‘Like’ is the only potential response to posts on Facebook.

 

Yes, we can type whatever response to posts that we want with words.  But words are an expressive medium geared primarily at the higher nervous system. They are ideal for the expression of formed concepts that emerge from the higher mind.  They don’t account well for the human desire to engage our limbic system and express the base emotional responses we have as humans.

Skimming to Dig Deeper
Additionally, so much of our consumption of social media, particularly in Facebook given their news feed layout, is about skimming through our feeds for stories of interest.  Text based responses have limited ‘visual interest triggers’ (‘Like’ being the only one) that serve to tell us what others think of the post that would help us to quickly make decisions about what stories we want to dive into for greater analysis.

 

Growing Wide When They Should be Expanding Deep
With the changes Facebook made not too long ago to add a secondary news feed to the right side of the page, I’d argue Facebook is actually headed in the wrong direction.  They are headed ‘wide’ bombarding us with ever more minutiae and little details about the activity of our social graph that end up making the page far too bloated and busy, and do little to guide the user as to what they should focus on. Yes, I know there are business benefits to integrating things like music and video services, but I am speaking now from a user experience perspective and considering how the technology is taking human behavior into account.
Instead, they should be heading deep—creating user interface innovations that enables users to express themselves, and experience the expressions of others, in the rich manner that humans experience their lives and participate in the lives of others.  The idea here is, instead of making humans change their behavior to match the technology, the technology should change to match the behavior of the human.

 

Before we dive into ways Facebook could start to do so, a few words of caution.  I am far from a user interface expert and even farther from a graphic artist, so I have to ask you to lend me your imagination as I make an attempt at proposing a framework for how Facebook might begin to move towards enabling true human interaction in a social network.  This is a 50,000 foot view and it goes without saying that Facebook would have to apply some serious design chops to the concept to make it both beautiful and functional.

 

Color as an Expression of Human Emotion
Imagine if Facebook gave users the ability to communicate how they feel in response to a particular post in their news feed through the use of color.  Users could express their feelings about the item by using a slider that changes the color as they select.  Multiple emotional responses to a particular situation could be accommodated with the blending of colors and clever design work.
Done right, the benefits of such a system are that users gain the ability to express themselves in a more human manner.  But arguably even more than that, they gain the ability to see how others feel—their limbic responses—to stories in their news feed.  This makes experiencing things like life events such as a birth—where scanning your news feed gives the higher mind the textual responses, but the limbic mind also experiences the event by virtually participating in the joy via the emotional response to the colors.

 

With the right design work, Facebook could provide a visual, color summary in the News Feed about how people are feeling about specific posts.  68% of users are ‘excited’ about the (post) “Snow’s Coming!’, while 32% are ‘nervous’, and 28% are ‘happy’.  You get the idea.

 

Visibility into the Crowd’s Response to Events
Now, take that a step further and imagine logging onto Facebook and typing in [event] to visually see (again, through the tasteful use of color) how people in your social graph (or even all of Facebook!) feel about a common event.  Sentiment analysis is not a new phenomenon, there are numerous vendors that do it with Twitter data, but the quality of the analysis is limited by the ability of the vendor’s algorithm to extract sentiment from large quantities of often ambiguous verbiage, and understand both the event being discussed and the sentiment being expressed.  As a result, the quality of analysis such products have provided to this point have generally been dubious at best.  With the proposed system Facebook would build, the most difficult part of the two part analysis—the sentiment of the event–would be entered directly into Facebook by the user, as we described above, as they respond ‘emotionally’ to events in their feed.  This would give Facebook a treasure trove of sentiment data that could be used in all sorts of cool ways to tell users how others respond to an event.

 

To conclude, don’t get caught up in the specifics of exactly how the system would work.  And, don’t be blinded by the awfulness of my graphical color example above. (clearly work would have to be done to mute the colors so that your feed doesn’t look like a rainbow vomited all over it).  Focus instead, on the big picture idea of deeper, more human ways for people to embed in and interact in their social networks.  Then tell me why you think the concept will or won’t work in the comments below.

 

2 Responses to Why Facebook, the Leading Social Network, Is Not Actually Very Social (and how they can fix it)

  1. This is still, unbelievably, Facebook’s biggest issue (lacking truly social environments). In a perfect world, your solution would be excellent. I think the only issue is the complication of the user’s decision making process while interacting with the site.

    Right now, the user has to make one yes or no decision. To like or not to like. If they feel like further expressing their views, they can do so within the words of their comment. If you give a user the color spectrum and they feel both surprised & sad, it creates hesitation in the response decision (which I assume Facebook wants to be as fast as possible to create more engagement).

    I think the biggest fault of Facebook right now is its inability to create a conversational environment, like Twitter has. On Facebook, it would be completely unacceptable to “live tweet” an event or even a string of thoughts.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but you’re on the right track. Would be interested to know if you have any updated opinions/thoughts on this.

    • Nathan Safran says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment Ryan. It really is amazing that this is still an issue they have not made substantial progress on.

      You raise a good point re: hesitation in the user response, but my instinct is to say that it may be an issue that is surmountable with clever design principles–maybe a way to give users an opportunity to indicate they have more than one response? Or a design that engenders quick and easy input before moving on to the next thing in the feed. Either way, IMHO they should be thinking about how to draw users in more ‘deeply’, especially if the reports of decreased user engagement in the media are to believed. (And, agree that Twitter has the ‘conversational environment’ thing that FB does not, which surely makes them a more ‘critical/sticky’ social network than the ‘comment on pictures and then move on’ thing that Facebook has…)

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