Are Social Nets Changing Too Much?

by , Dec 23, 2013, 4:48 PM
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Some would say that the history of Facebook has been one long, uninterrupted succession of tweaks -- additions, subtractions, new features, new formats and looks, new advertising units, and of course let’s not forget new privacy policies. Twitter had also been through an impressive number of revamps in its somewhat shorter life. And while many of these changes have stirred users to high dudgeon, so far there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of long-term alienation of users, who typically complain about the new look for a while and then forget it was ever any other way.

But the key words in that sentence are “so far”: it seems reasonable to assume that a really disruptive change to a social network’s user interface (or privacy policy, or advertising strategy) might suffice to drive a substantial number of users to say “that’s it -- I quit!”

This line of questioning was prompted by what seemed, at first, like a relatively minor change over at Twitter, which recently introduced breaking news alerts in the form of push notifications with links from big news orgs. This morning the Twitter news service put the spotlight on a story from Reuters about a conviction in an insider trading case, which provoked a mini (or maybe not-so-mini) backlash from Twitter users confused why they were receiving a news update from Reuters when they don’t even follow the Reuters account.

Unsurprisingly many users jumped to the conclusion that Reuters had somehow paid to promote the tweet, resulting in a lot of negative sentiment towards the brand (in plain English, they were pissed off at Reuters). As it is obviously not Twitter’s intention to create ill feeling towards its members -- especially a major content partner like Reuters -- it seems pretty clear that this new feature may need to be revamped considerably, if not just dumped altogether.

At the same time Facebook is introducing yet another new element to the user experience in the form of auto-play video ads that begin playing in the news feed (with sound muted) as the user scrolls down the posts; if the user wants to hear the sound they can opt to turn it on. I don’t know if the Facebook video ads will be received with the wrath that accompanied, say, the roll-out of Beacon, but it’s not hard to imagine that they could trigger a significant negative reaction.

The issue is especially interesting because there is some evidence that Facebook may be losing its grip on teenagers -- a coveted demo for advertisers and logically a key indicator of future audience trends. While Facebook could get way with forcing users to accept new features back when it enjoyed both novelty and an effective monopoly, with social media channels proliferating, do further changes to the user experience risk lasting audience alienation?

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