I got into a conversation with a friend on the way back from the airport and we were talking about the various social sites we use and wound  up spending most of our time discussing facebook.

He claimed that he found facebook more and more useful over time, while I found facebook less and less useful over time. After chatting for a while I managed to get my displeasure with facebook down to a few things and I think that while they are fixable, facebook is unlikely to fix them.

First, Facebook doesn’t provide a reasonable way for my to control my privacy. It does too many things and there are too many people and the controls are too complicated, so I basically wind up having only two options: assume everyone sees it or lock it down so nobody can see it.

This sucks. At first the privacy seemed to work fine but I think that was a temporary boon that resulted from the smaller membership that came at first as well as the limited type of members. When I first joined I had like 30 friends at my college and a few branches out to friends from high school. Further, I knew that everyone who claimed to be at my college at least had a currently functioning e-mail address for there. This worked well because there were two logical groups of people to give permissions: my “friends” and my “network”.

My “friends” were a relatively small number of people who I went to school with either at college or high school and thus I could pretty well reason about what I wanted them to know about me. My “network” was limited to people that currently held a valid e-mail address at my school, so I knew that they were faculty, staff or (most likely) students and thus I could also reason about what I wanted them to know.

Instead, today, my “friends” include my parents, colleagues, cousins, friends from high, school, undergrad, grad school, people I met traveling and the list goes on. Also, because I’ve been on facebook for about 5 years, some of these people I haven’t talked to in forever. Now the meaning of the group “friends” is all but lost. I can’t reason about who they are or what I want them to know in the least.

Similarly, “networks” are now distended in time which vastly dilutes their utility. Anyone who ever went to some school can now be a member of that network and other networks are just cities where there’s no verification at all. Again, this gives me no basis on which to think about filtering for privacy.

In order to address these complaints, facebook has lists which you can make of friends, but these lists have to constantly managed and groomed one friend at a time. The result is that I still have only one poorly updated list of people which never use for anything.

Even if the lists worked, there’s no good way to reason about all the information that is up on facebook for people to see and know that you’ve gotten all of it correctly filtered. Even before applications completely sullied the waters, it was still difficult to figure out how to set the privacy for each kind of data or even what exactly that kind of data was.

I don’t have a great solution for this part of the privacy problem, but I think that’s because the data is just so poorly segmented and so far flung that to try and categorize it all in a reasonable way for me to reason about is really hard. The controls provide alternately way too few and way too many options about my privacy more or less at random.

My second major complaint is simply that facebook has gotten buggy and laggy. There are all sorts of places now on facebook where things occasionally break in stupid ways. When I add a friend, sometimes the add friend dialog doesn’t go away. For a long time my page would occasionally freeze on clicking a link and all links would stop working forcing me to manually retype the address in the address bar to unfreeze things. The photo galleries seem to have a similar problem where some photos just won’t load some of the time.

On the less pure-bug side, facebook seems to be having issues with timely delivery of messages and consistence. There are times where the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing. A status update will appear in one view but not another. A gift will appear on somebody’s wall, but not in their gift box. These usually resolve themselves after a few minutes to an hour, but are still annoying and indicative of larger back-end problems. The fact that my friend lost all of his status updates that he had ever made is a more visceral example of what I take to be the same problems with consistency.

Also, I don’t get notified of things which happen on facebook the way I used to. It used to be that I would get an e-mail within a few minutes of the action happening, now sometimes it doesn’t come for hours and other times if I get to the notification on facebook before I get the e-mail, the e-mail never comes.

The third, final, and probably most important complaint I have is that facebook produces too much information for me to consume reasonably and provides poor tools for me to filter it. I have almost 300 friends now, which is a pretty normal number, but it produces a volume of information that would probably take 1-2 hours each day to go through and for me to process. There’s a lot of good stuff in there and occasionally I find out that somebody is in the same city as me because we’re both traveling and we can serendipitously connect there, but I’m sure for every time that happens, there are at least 2-3 times where I miss something.

Also, I know that when I’m on facebook looking at the stream of information, at least 80% of my time is essentially wasted reading stuff which I couldn’t care less about. The only tools I have to control what I see are a bunch of sliders which control various types of stories and how likely they are to appear on my stream as well as a way to say I want to hear more about certain people (which I have to manually enter) and less about others (again manually entered). There’s very little explanation about how these all work and my experimentation has really only given me the answer of: not very well.

I see two solutions to this. The first I’ll call Google magic because it basically just involves enough cool machine learning people getting together to actually make a filter that works like magic—but works well—to give me only want I want. I think there is some chance this is possible, but it would be a huge leap from what facebook seems to have been good at to something which I’ve never seen anyone but Google get remotely right.

The second solution would be to “crowdsource” filtering by allowing my friends to flag something saying that I might be interested in it the way that you can currently tag somebody in a photo and they hear about it. This communal filtering I think is much more likely to happen as it plays to the things which facebook is already pretty decent at. I might still miss a few things where I don’t have a lot of friends in common with somebody, but in general it would keep me from missing anything big and would allow me to mostly ignore facebook a lot of the time.

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