April 2, 2013

As Facebook matures, is it losing its edge?

The Associated Press

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Daniel Singer,13m works at his computer at home in Los Angeles recently. Singer thinks the average teenager wants to see new stuff. For him, Facebook is part of a daily routine. "Kind of like brushing your teeth," he says.

AP

Few people share that sentiment these days. Ian Bogost, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, recently listed email alongside "Blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn" in a Facebook post.

"I was just going through my daily email routine, reflecting on the fact that it feels like batting down a wall of locusts," Bogost says.

Although email has gone from after-school treat to a dull routine in the space of 20 years, no one is ready to ring its death knell just yet. And similarly, Facebook's lost luster doesn't necessarily foreshadow its obsolescence.

"I don't see teenagers leaving in droves," boyd says. "I just don't see it being their site of passion."

In early March, Facebook unveiled a big redesign to address some of its users' most pressing gripes. The retooling, which is already available to some people, is intended to get rid of the clutter that's been a complaint among Facebook users for some time.

Facebook surveys its users regularly about their thoughts on the site. Jane Leibrock, whose title at Facebook is user experience researcher, says it was about a year ago that she noticed people were complaining about "clutter" in their feeds. Leibrock asked them what they meant. It turns out that the different types of content flowing through people's News Feeds — links, ads, photos, status updates, things people "liked" or commented on — were "making it difficult to focus on any one thing," she says. "It might have even been discouraging them from finding new content."

The new design seeks to address the issue. There is a distinct feed for "all friends," another for different groups of friends, one just for photos, and one for pages that users follow. As a result, says Chris Struhar, the lead engineer on the new design, the new feeds give people a way to see everything that's going on.

"The amount of stories you have available to see has continued to increase," Struhar says. "What we try to do now is give you more control over what stories you see in your feed."

With that kind of control, the company hopes people will spend more time on the site and share more information about themselves so companies can target them better with advertisements.

Paul Friedman, a 59-year-old dentist in New York City, says he's using Facebook less now than when he first signed on four years ago, but he's not sure if the site has "become less interesting or that I am just less interested in it," he says.

"I think that it might have seemed more interesting in the past because it was a new 'forum,'" Friedman says. "Now that it is not new, it takes more unique content to make it interesting."

That said, Friedman still uses Facebook to see if friends are organizing events, such as music gigs or yoga classes, or to check out interesting YouTube videos. He says seeing the same jokes reappear doesn't really bother him.

"Ninety-nine percent of it is a waste of time anyway," he says. "If it wasn't for the one percent, I'd close my account."

When it comes to people of a certain age, Friedman may be in the minority. Tammy Gordon, vice president of the AARP's social media team, says the 50-plus set is just now settling into Facebook. The organization's own Facebook page grew from 80,000 fans to a million last year. This age group is growing the fastest because older people tend to be latecomers to Facebook. According to a recent Pew survey, 32 percent of people 65 or older use social networking sites, compared with 83 percent of those 18 to 29.

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