Social media’s attempts to appeal to casual users is driving down my usage

Congratulations, Facebook… all of your hard work to appeal to casual users has been successful. I hardly look at you any more. And careful, Twitter… you are risking the same fate!

I used to love Facebook. I found it a great way to keep up with the zeitgeist of what was going on in my community and far-flung friends. It was my window into popular culture was well as the ups-and-downs of people I care about.

Several times a day, I would spend a couple of minutes scrolling through the timeline until I got to the posts I had already read. While the majority of posts are inane, tucked inside were some really important or interesting updates I didn’t want to miss.

In the process, Facebook was able to show me a lot of ads.  Most of them I ignored, but occasionally I would click on one.  I even bought a few things… I’m thinking of you, Touch of Modern.

However, Facebook went in a different direction. While people like me who wanted to see every post were great, they realized they were missing out on a lot of casual users. These are the users who might log in once every few days or just a few times a month, and if they didn’t see interesting posts, they probably wouldn’t come back. So they put more and more work into tuning their news algorithm.

With their “Top Stories” view, they brought the most interesting, most liked, most commented on articles up to the top, out of order. Articles that your friend were commenting on could re-appear, rather than scrolling off in linear time. It’s perfect for casual readers who can come in, see the most important and exciting updates, and then leave.

I didn’t like it, but fortunately, Facebook gave you an option.  The News Feed could be in either “Top Stories” or “Most Recent”.  I kept it on “Most Recent”.  Annoyingly, every once in a while it would automatically switch back to “Top Stories” mode, but I would switch it again and everything would be fine.  And so several months went by.

At some point, however, Facebook decided that everyone should be using “Top Stories”, so they made “Most Recent” harder to get to for their mobile app, which is where I usually accessed it.  Rather than just a setting in the News Feed, “Most Recent” became a hidden option buried in several layers of sub-menus.  You could still get to it, but it was a lot more taps and a lot more annoying when it automatically reverted.  I still stuck with it.

Facebook still wasn’t satisfied, I guess.  They really wanted everyone to be in “Top Stories”, so they altered the behavior of “Most Recent”.  I imagine someone at Facebook saying, “They think they want items in chronological order? Fine, give them *everything*… see how they like that!”

Now, items would show up in my news feed over and over.  Every time a friend clicked the like button on a post in my timeline, it would jump in.  No new information, just the same article telling me now that “Joe” liked it.  I found myself scrolling constantly threw articles I had already seen.  Yes, it was “Most Recent”, but the chronological order was basically destroyed.

In the end, I gave in.  I decided that if Facebook really wanted me to use “Top Stories”, I would use it. And so, the decline in my Facebook usage began. Yes, when I went in, I had some very interesting and exciting posts right up top.  But as I would scroll down, I would start seeing stuff I had already seen, followed by new stuff.  I would see posts from three days ago, followed by a post from 20 minutes ago.  I could never figure out if I had “caught up” on the news.

Even more annoying, the out-of-order posts quickly became confusing.  At the top of my feed, I would see a post from a two hour post from a friend saying something like, “Oh no! Our car broke down! Can anyone give our kids a ride to school?”, but three pages down, it would say, “Problem solved! Our neighbor gave the battery a jump.”  Or posts would show up out-of-context, where a person is referring to another post they made a few minutes before, but it doesn’t show up in the feed and I have no idea what they are talking about.

Gradually, I started using Facebook less and less.  Nowadays, I try to remember to check it once a day.  I will scan the top headlines before I go to bed, but it’s an afterthought. Nice job, Facebook.  I’d say that I probably spend about 5% of the time using the service compared to what I used to do (some of you might argue that’s a good thing, but I miss the service).

Twitter has also slowly been going down this path, although I have managed to hang on.  I carefully maintain the list of people I follow, and I like to read every tweet.  If someone tweets too much, I remove them.  I consider it a vital source of information, particularly in the technology world, and sometimes a really important tweet will zip by.  I want to make sure I have seen them all.

The Twitter website makes this really hard.  They have no concept of picking up where you left off.  They have a section called “While you were away”, which tries to do something similar to Facebook’s “Top Stories”, showing you the tweets it *thinks* you will like the most, but I really want to see them all.

If you keep the Twitter window open on your browser, it will keep track of how many tweets are new, but this is of limited use.  You can’t switch from mobile to desktop and pick up where you left off, and if you have to reboot your computer, you start fresh.

Fortunately, other twitter clients like Twitterific jumped into the gap.  They wrote their own clients on top of the twitter API, and they included services like iCloud or Tweet Marker to track your place.  You could move from one device to another, and your position would be maintained.  Perfect.

Unfortunately, Twitter has felt the need to meddle.  A few years ago, they started limiting API usage by developer, trying to push everyone to use their own website and mobile apps (which don’t have any ability to mark your place).  Twitterific had a desktop and a mobile client, but to make better use of their available API keys, they stopped updating the desktop client.

It still works, but it hasn’t kept up with functional changes like inline images or quoted tweets.  The mobile experience is excellent, and the desktop experience is poor.  And the problem is, I don’t always want to use my mobile device to keep up on Twitter.  One of the things I love about Twitter is the links to relevant technology related news articles, and it is much more pleasant to read these on a desktop browser.

I was getting close to giving up until I discovered a new client, Tweetbot.  I was always vaguely aware of them, but their apps were much more expensive ($4.99 for the iOS client, $12.99 for the desktop client).  However, it looks like the higher cost has reduced their API usage, so they have actually continued to invest in their desktop client. It supports all of the latest features, and it perfectly hands off my reading position between my mobile devices and desktop client.

So, I’m still hanging on with twitter, thanks to Tweetbot. I loved Twitterrific, but their inability to provide a satisfying desktop experience lost me as a user.

I know Facebook and Twitter are carefully measuring their active engaged user counts, and they need the casual users to keep their numbers growing.  But couldn’t they do it without sacrificing functionality for their more active users?

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2 Responses to Social media’s attempts to appeal to casual users is driving down my usage

  1. Natan Gesher says:

    Funny, I just wrote about this same thing:

    […] That’s why Twitter is attempting to ruin the idea of a simple and reliable reverse-chronological timeline that shows every tweet of every account its users follow: first by breaking tweets into three tabs (Tweets, the default; Tweets & replies; Photos & videos), second by showing “While you were away” instead of everything, third – this hasn’t happened yet – by actually making it very difficult or impossible to see every tweet in one’s timeline.

    Advertisers love these shenanigans on Facebook, and they’ll love them on Twitter too. Obliterating the timeline is a way of reforming user behavior away from completism and towards curation. Under a completist paradigm, I decide what I want to follow and then I’m presented with all of it (and if I miss something, I can always scroll back and back and back to find it). Under a curation paradigm, I give Twitter some hints (I like Barack Obama, I like Kim Kardashian, I like Robert Griffin) and then Twitter decides what I’ll see and when I’ll see it. But of course, at that point, it won’t entirely be Twitter deciding. It will be advertisers. And it will be over for me and a lot of other core people who love Twitter the product, Twitter the platform and Twitter the community… and tolerate Twitter the company.

  2. Deborah Rothman says:

    I enjoy all your posts, but this one was especially interesting. Thanks for keeping me up to date.

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