The black box of Facebook

Facebook’s latest innovation is its new Lightbox-esque picture viewer, a very slight change in comparison with the recent big profile changes. Some are predictably annoyed by this change, but it’s an interesting illustration of the inability of any large web organization to ever let well enough alone. Unlike other media, the web is in a constant state of flux. People inside Facebook would probably tell you that this is part of an effort to capitalize on the intense user interest in using the site as a Flickr/Picasa/Imagebucket alternative. But really, those are pretty diverse services serving diverse markets and needs. Instead, I suggest the following is at play.

First, Facebook, the site itself, is a fairly complicated thing. Together with the databases that power it, understanding the site is a big undertaking, and one that requires a decent-size permanent staff of coders. And even if it weren’t that complex, it’s the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t want a bunch of freelancers coming and going on anyway. So you’ve got all these in-house hackers, occasionally doing something big and visible like the new profile, and often doing lower-visibility things like optimizing site speed, developing new ad opportunities, etc. But some of these folks are interface specialists. They just did the new profile. Do you suppose Facebook wants to pay them to sit on their thumbs until it’s determined that the user base is ready to tolerate another significant interface change? Probably not. They need to be working on and changing something in order to justify their salaries. And that’s fine, because a) users have consistently shown that their initial annoyance will subside without any significant number of account deletions, and b) some seemingly minor interface changes that are hated at first become major deals later on (e.g., the news feed). If this really is just about Flickr, well, Flickr is constantly updating, too. So is Google and everybody else. And before you know it, the market has produced a non-stop interface churn.

(And yes, after more than a month, this is what gets me back to posting.)

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