Over the last few years, there’s been a steady decline in the number of Facebook users in the UK and Europe. This is happening for a number of reasons. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and an increase in data privacy awareness has a lot to answer for but it’s also just not cool enough for the younger generations who prefer the instant gratification of Snapchat and Instagram. And for those of us old enough to remember how it started, the current iteration of Facebook is just well... rubbish.
I make up part of that declining figure. In mid 2016 I decided I’d had enough. My observations of how people use the platform were the push I needed. And if that wasn’t enough, the thought of my older family members commenting on my pictures would have driven me to push that delete button too, once I’d found it. That’s a usability tale for another day but one thing is clear. It was game over. Bye bye Facebook.
Even if you discount everything I’ve said so far, with my UX hat on, I still wouldn’t want to be on Facebook. As designers, we have the chance to change people’s lives. Anything and everything we design has the potential for unintended consequences. Whilst we’re generally trying to balance commercial interests with user needs, it’s worth taking a step back occasionally and considering what behaviours we’re encouraging.
As an aside, I want you to know that despite what you’re probably thinking, I do use social media in some forms. I’m on Instagram - there are far too many pictures of animals, food and exotic destinations to drop a heart on - and twitter is incredibly useful for keeping up to date with news and stuff related to my job. I enjoy WhatsApp for its clean design and success at making group conversations feel personal. Oh, and although as a marketing tool, LinkedIn’s engagement rates are lousy but show me the profile of someone I’ve got to pitch to and it’s suddenly very useful!
I digress, back to Facebook. Let’s take a look at some of the negative social aspects to come out of features which are described as ‘beneficial to users’.
Feature: Status updates
Perceived user benefit: People can share what they’re up to with all their friends at once! This saves them time.
In reality: Facebook claims to be about friendships, but what it actually does is encourage users to move from having real conversations with friends to broadcasting their news en masse to anyone out there who happens to be scrolling by. Whilst this is pretty unedifying, it also reduces the incentive to hold conversations in person reducing the reasons for social interaction in the first place.
Feature: The like button / birthday notifications
Perceived user benefit: Keep up to date with friends and help them celebrate a special occasion or event.
In reality: How many people have you lost contact with over the years? As unsentimental is it is to say, some friendships run their course for a reason. If you genuinely enjoyed their company, you’d probably have kept in touch right? Many interactions with people on Facebook are just people “liking” your posts or posting on your wall because it’s your birthday. As a result, you stay loosely connected with people you no longer have anything in common with.
Feature: Link sharing
Perceived user benefit: People can share content they find interesting, from all around the web with their friends. Isn’t this cool?
In reality: The general rule of most polite social gatherings is to avoid discussing religion or politics. Although people still share pictures of kittens, videos of grandmas falling out of boats and those never ending bloody minion memes, the link sharing feature also now seems to encourage people to broadcast their views (or other people’s views) on many things they might otherwise have kept to themselves.
Personally, there are loads of people I loved to be around in real life who I now hate because of the way they’ve behaved online. What’s more, this behaviour tends to lean towards the most extreme viewpoints on both the left and right with like minded people escalating the situation by sharing further articles supporting their viewpoint. Back in the 1990’s when many of us used forums, proper conduct was enforced by draconian moderation until we learnt how to behave. The massive upsurge in social media adoption post 2007 seems to have resulted in users skipping the stage of being educated in netiquette and forgetting they’re talking to other humans.
Feature: the news feed
Perceived user benefit: We spend too much time online and on Facebook, the problem is exacerbated by a near limitless feed of exciting content to keep us occupied. It’s been estimated that worldwide, users spend about 950 million hours on Facebook each day. With 2.13 billion monthly users and 1.4 billion daily users, that means the average monthly user spends 27 minutes per day in the app, and if you go by daily users, they spend about 41 minutes per day on Facebook.
In reality: How many times have you taken your phone out to do something and then got trapped in the Facebook rabbit hole? Case closed.
Feature: Ridiculously targeted advertising
Perceived user benefit: Users will see adverts for relevant products and services and be able to easily get all the things they really want!
In reality: Rumours aside, whilst Facebook may not be listening to everything we say, it’s almost certainly scanning every image. A friend of mine recently used messenger to send another friend a photo of her baby in a leopard-print baby grow. Her childless friend in her 50’s was then deluged with adverts for animal print baby clothing. We’ve all heard these stories and although there’s actually no evidence that micro-targeting of advertising is an effective tactic, the fact it’s possible is proof that Facebook is collecting huge amounts of data on its users.
In a recent UCD Bristol meetup, we heard from Lon Barfield an expert on privacy by design. I’ll finish with something poignant which struck me during his talk:
The more you use facebook, the more they profit. And yet, they’re not selling you anything. They earn their money by collecting your personal data to sell targeted advertising. The more they fine tune your addiction to their platform, the more adverts they can serve and the more money they make.
If that’s not reason enough to hit the delete button, I don’t know what is.