Land of the Free; Home of the Critic

blorpThere are all kinds of different business models.   I won’t pretend to be an expert in economics or business, but I am smart enough to know that a business that provides a service “for free” to a community of users is not usually in it for the feel goods.  They derive some economic benefit from the service.  The user community that avails itself of the “free” service makes up a key part of its base. It relies on those users to either provide content (as in the case of free blogging websites, forums, search engines, or social networking sites), or to view/use content and be subjected to advertising that the business sells (free magazines, webzines, television programming, smartphone apps).

In either case, while the user is not actually prying free dollars from his own pocket, he is an integral part of that product or service.  As such, his opinion regarding the quality of that service very much matters.

Facebook uses a model based on a hybrid of the two I mentioned.  It relies on user generated content for data mining. It also relies on advertising and a large user base to entice big dollar advertisers.  In addition it relies on the “buzz” generated by its users as marketing tools.  The more people Facebook  entices to use its product, the better.  Keep the peeps happy while maximizing your ability to mine even more information and get more eyes looking at ads.  It can be a truly win-win-win situation for pretty much everyone involved.

Facebook also has a history of pushing out modifications to its product that its management and engineering groups feel are “good” for its product, but they usually go about it in a ham-fisted fashion. They roll out the changes without much announcement — even fairly dramatic ones that significantly alter the user’s experience — and without much training for the user, and often with little consideration for all of the impacts the changes may have across the user community. They have, in the past,  compromised user privacy, and have also at times created usability issues for a variety of people.

Irrespective of how Facebook conceives, designs and implements its changes, and irrespective of the overall goodness or badness of these changes, there will be elements within the user base that object — vociferously — to the changes.  Some object simply because they dislike change. A person gets used to a way of doing something and even if the change ultimately improves the interaction, the fact that you’re asking a user to change at all causes distress.  That’s accepted.  That’s also somewhat minor.

When a change is not only unadvertised and abrupt, but is a significant shift with respect to how the product or service works (in terms of the layout, accessibility, and user experience), the outcry can be pretty overwhelming.

That sort of outcry is usually based on some valid, considered objections.

And that outcry is not only valid, but necessary, irrespective of whether the people who are complaining are spending money for the service.

There is a meme going around on Facebook and elsewhere wherein people respond to complaints about Facebook’s latest changes with generally snarky comments such as, “Hey, quit complaining! It’s free! Just use it, or don’t use it. Geez!”

While I respect the truth — Facebook doesn’t cost its user any money — and I respect the right of the individual to express this opinion, telling people to shut up and color because they haven’t opened their wallets is not only a rude and ill-considered comment, it is an irrelevant comment.

Companies that rely in this fashion on their user base actually need that feedback, especially when the feedback is grounded on genuine usability issues that hamper the experience.  An example of Facebook’s latest changes concerns the addition of a “ticker” that scrolls updates continuously on the screen that Facebook has algorithmically determined might be of interest to its user. Some people react badly to motion on their displays. It may feed attention deficit issues. In my case, I had to close the Facebook window simply to be able to conduct a conversation because the constant motion on the screen distracted my thought process.  There was no obvious way to shut off the ticker.  For others, they have organized the way they use Facebook to avoid negative impact to their personal productivity. Facebook rearranged the way the information is presented, undoing what the users had taken pains to set up for their personal usage cases. Again, there was no clear way to customize the organization to suit the user.

So Facebook has to rely on user feedback. Facebook would not want to lose a significant portion of its user base, after all. That would affect its revenue.

Granted, it would be more useful for the users who have issues to take their complaints to a forum set up for such feedback, and to make useful suggestions for improvement rather than just piss and moan about how awful it all is, yet there is still value to be had in simply whining.  A large enough groundswell of noisy complaint forces Facebook to sit up and take notice, and to take the usable suggestions seriously.  When the complaint is large enough that national news outlets are reporting on it, you can be certain the powers that be within Facebook are looking through the forums and feedback reports to find out how badly they miscalculated and what they can do to recover.

Using Facebook is not truly free for us.  We are trading our time — voluntarily and gladly in most cases — we are offering up our information, and we are viewing the ads.  We are providing Facebook the content they rely on to make their business work.  We are providing advertisement services when we invite our family and friends to join. We have a valid say in the usability of the service.  Our say can come in the form of a boycott, or in the form of a loud and bitter complaint.  It’s all good, and Facebook should welcome it.

The rest of you who are gluing yourselves to the easy meme of  “it’s free, so shut up and color”?

I reject your suggestion, but thanks for offering it.