At the risk of speaking too soon on Facebook’s announced design changes, I want to venture some reflections on what it seems Facebook is doing. I’ve long argued for capturing user interests over needs and objectives; of using social interaction design to galvanize and connect activities and communication; of allowing talk to emerge around shared interests; of extending the ego into the mediated social — friendships and groups; and of using preserving value in the stream as a means of slowing the flow of realtime feeds.
Well it seems that Facebook has got it right. The site’s new stories and timeline changes look to be a happy combination of good user and business practices. Where the Like button had become an over-used and under-whelming gesture of interest, stories will now collect emerging social attention to topics, events, activities, and news in a manner that permits topical talk to coalesce dynamically and real time within the user timeline. Relevant stories will presumably endure, as attention and activity persists, as they should.
A separate realtime ticker will serve to bubble up activity that may capture attention and springboard talk — that’s about right for the use of brief user comments as well as for the system messages about user activity that Facebook pioneered and which it has developed into a successful interaction model (I don’t have to tell anybody that I’ve uploaded pictures — Facebook does that for me). The ticker and timeline give us two distinct speeds of flow — an improvement over the very time-consuming river of recent news that used to serve as our primary lens onto friend activity. (We must wonder whether or not twitter might consider doing the same — tweets slowed down and preserved in a timeline that combines tweets with their @replies and RTs; a separate feed for realtime twitter?)
New Facebook stories, because they are slower and more durable, better aggregate social interest in shared social news and activity. This should serve us users better, by making news more interesting, and by preserving our sharing efforts. It also does Facebook a great service, for it creates traveling social real estate and social data around which to intervene with future business and promotional links, related stories, ads, and so on (all TBD and according to user permissions and receptiveness.)
Facebook stories motivate us to create. There being two main views of identity — create your identity or discover your identity — Facebook seems to empower both. Story creation becomes social, and as it becomes social, creates discovery (I believe Zuckerberg even called it serendipity). Again, this aligns with the 21st century Self — identity created by taking up interests and socialized by interests shared and reflected by others. All the while leaving behind valuable social data.
Facebook then has managed a new way of engaging latent social graph interaction by means of interest graphs. That is, social graph activity founded not simply on a relationship, but connected by relationship and actualized around topical sharing talk and talk. It would seem that our prior complaints about Facebook having mistakenly designed itself around a single homogeneous social graph, at the expense of the interest graph, are now moot.
Clearly, they’ve done a lot of good work and smart thinking at Facebook. Google+ needs to get on top of topical circles. And find a way to bubble up conversations in the stream so that they, too, become story-like. (At present, talk on G+ still aggregates around people doing the most talking, with the greatest number of followers. Soapbox interaction instead of the more nuanced interaction possibilities on Facebook.)
I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out. But like them or not, Facebook’s redesign will push other feed and stream-based companies to focus on stories over narration; of tales told together over isolated appeals for attention and response. I’ve long thought that social media are talk media — facilitating a new kind of talk on the basis of its intrinsic interest in shared, social engagement, for stretches or episodes of time, preserved or punctuating a daily life increasingly attentive of mediated relationships and interactions. Talk by means of brief statements and media-rich expressions (posting a video to friends is talk), soliciting the interest of those who may happen to notice and find interest in it. What sociologists have called an “open state of talk”: neither formal nor task-oriented, not a telling, and never finished. In the book of online social, Facebook has turned a new chapter. Let’s see how it writes.