It’s not quite five months since I dropped out of Facebook. I was irritated and fed up with the constant introduction of new “features” that required eternal vigilance over one’s privacy settings. Deeply entrenched, it seemed daring (and a bit scary) to drop out of sight from the dozens of friend-links on Facebook. Within a week, I forgot about Facebook.
Facebook’s high drama is no accident
I see that Facebook is in the news again: they “forced” everyone to use a new style of profile page – this one featuring photos that other people tag with your name. Uproar! Outrage!
Adolescents specialize in this sort of thing: constantly breaching norms just a little, perhaps with a grin or even a smirk on their faces. Whether they like the scene of their parents coming unglued, or they crave the attention their behavior draws, the drama is no accident. And it’s not really about the breach of norms.
Facebook is the one who benefits
The pattern of Facebook changes is tediously familiar: they roll out a change that makes people feel just a little vulnerable. “How could they think we would like that?” shriek some users, or “They should have put in an option so we can turn it off!” say others. People start groups to beg for the opt-out or express their outrage at the change. News services and blogs shout out the change in dire terms like “How to Keep Facebook from Humiliating You Today.
What are the results?
- Hundreds of people who haven’t touched their Facebook account in days, weeks or months rush to update their settings – probably getting lured into spending a moment to catch up on the news feed and get re-involved.
- People who haven’t used Facebook before sign up to see what all the fuss is about
- Folks who are worried that their friends will tag crude, violent, revealing, or simply irrelevant images with their name feel compelled to check often, perhaps several times a day, to make sure this dire event has not come to pass.
- The cautious pore over their “friends” list, pruning out the deadwood and perhaps accepting some of Facebook’s suggestions for new friends
- A very small number of people decide to stop playing the game and leave. We are unnoticed in the general commotion.
What does this add up to? Millions more pages served, each filled with ads. Millions of opportunities to lure people back into Farmville. Tens of thousands of clicks and comments in which users declare, in essence, that Facebook is vitally important to their lives – because this change is just a disaster.
Constant norm-breaching change as a business model
The Facebook Drama is scripted so skillfully that users are sucked into performing the same melodramatic scenes every few weeks. Each episode expands the user pool, increases Facebook’s visibility and hegemony, and speeds up the revenue flow. The semblance of interaction across hundreds of loosely linked friends is addictive; the episodes of frustration (and concern about one’s online identity) are quickly forgotten. It’s worked so far: Goldman Sachs considers this ephemeral entity to be worth $50 billion.
Most parents of adolescents realize, sooner or later, that their teenager generates these dramatic confrontations for other purposes – what psychologists call secondary gain. Facebook, conceived in the mind of someone barely past adolescence, has simply harnessed the behavior that keeps parents constantly engaged and tune in – and made it the basis of a business plan.