Why Facebook Won, and Other Hard Truths

A lot of people have been tweeting and emailing me and DM-ing me the recent Guardian piece by Iran’s “blogfather”.

You should read it yourself, but in short it is the story of a man sent to jail for blogging in Iran at the height of blogging’s influence and coming out of jail many years later to find that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have “killed the web.” And this is true. And it’s horrific. You need to read the article to remember why this fight matters.

In a related conversation yesterday we were talking about the New York Times article featuring a cast of merry Luddites talking about escaping the endless grind of Facebook and the stream.

And yes, The Stream Won. I get it. But when you ask many people *why* it won the answer you get, more or less, is that Evil Facebook and Twitter and Instagram hid the truth from the larger population and fooled them into thinking they wanted Evil Facebook and Instagram and Twitter instead of the exhilarating open web.

But that’s delusion at best. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter won because they solved problems that the open web repeatedly failed to solve. To some extent, they became evil because they won; they didn’t win because they were evil.

If you want to make a difference in this fight it’s important to understand what those issues they solved were, and to provide open solutions to them. A lot of the things that made Facebook what it is revolve around gaps in HTML and HTTP that once the web got up to speed never got addressed.

What we have learned over time is that people don’t want to go to 80 different sites, with different interfaces, layouts, and ads to read. They want, mostly, to go to one site with a standard layout and look at things there.

Maybe you love to go to 80 different sites a day. Maybe the visual diversity and experience of learning a new interface every five minutes is super-appealing to you. Maybe you think everyone is just being lazy IT’S NOT THAT HARD GUYS AMIRITE?

Great. You get a gold star. But you’re why Facebook won. For most people that “visual diversity” looks like 1970s commercial sprawl:


This is what browsing the web feels like today.

Do you know what Facebook feels like to people? It feels like this:


It feels like a carefully crafted downtown, full of many different things but where building codes have enforced a standardization of design.

Before you protest much, do you remember what your day looked like at the height of blogging? I remember what it looked like for me — it was Google Reader, all the time. And what Google Reader did was strip out all that graphic design we had worked so hard on so we didn’t have to deal with it, and we could read in a peaceful, quiet manner, in a standard interface.

Or engage in a thought experiment. Imagine that every email you got during a day had different fonts, headings, layout, navigation, and scrolling bar behavior. Wouldn’t that be fun? Or even better, every email forced you to click, and go read it on a beautiful custom-designed website. Then you would reply by making that person come to your website and emailing them a link to your new GeoCities creation. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

No? Well here’s the thing. People read the web now at the level they read email — they look at a lot of stuff. And what they want (and what many people continue to shame them for) is a standard interface that allows them to do that without feeling stressed.

You want to win against Facebook? Let go of the idea of people reading your stuff on your site, and develop or support interfaces that put your readers in control of how they view the web instead of giving the control to the people with the servers. Support people looking into federated recommendation systems. Make friends with the idea of full copies of your stuff flowing across the web instead of links.

There’s a way out of this that brings back a diversity of viewpoints on the web. But we will never get there if we require people to read our stuff on our site.

NOTE: People that don’t understand federation or syndication may think I am saying that we just have to make peace with the Facebooks and Twitters of the world. I’m not. I’m saying that we have to build a federated system with less ego, one that has the affordances of Facebook but on a distributed platform. Read my old posts on Federated Wiki if you want to see what that looks like.

40 thoughts on “Why Facebook Won, and Other Hard Truths

  1. Yup. If people had been willing to work together there would have been no need for Facebook or Twitter. They solved some very simple problems, that we knew how to solve, but everyone went off and reinvented instead of interoperating. And we all, except for FB and Twitter, lost as a result.

    • Hey Dave, honor to have you comment here. To be honest, the closest we got to a Facebook solution was RSS, and for a long time that solution kicked ass on what commercial sites had to offer. But somehow we couldn’t take it to the next logical step.

      Maybe Google Reader was part of the problem. Like so many other Google products it was just good enough to push competitive RSS readers out of the market. So we never got much creativity around RSS browsers and RSS communities. There seemed a minute in the mid-aughts like that could have been the direction, but it just never caught fire.

      • This. I curated one of the more popular lists of RSS readers for a hot minute, and gave it up partly because there were too many to track, and partly because the 800-lb Google came along and sucked all of the energy out of the market. They also beat Technorati at their own game. I was just wishing the other day for a search engine that only indexes and searches feeds. Of course a huge percentage of the feeds people would want in their search results would not be available, thanks to FB & Twitter’s bait-and-switch tactics on providing RSS feeds.

        It would be interesting to peek into an alternate reality where Google did not develop Google Reader, and/or did not leap as quickly to index blogs in real time so that they could grab Technorati’s users. How would the RSS reader market have shaken out? Another interesting reality would be the one where Google realized the opportunity they ended up throwing away, and nurtured Google Reader into something more like today’s Facebook – but with some/most/all content still hosted out on the wild web as we knew it then.

        The more important questions of course are about what it will take now to reinvigorate an open web. I’ll take a look at your writing on Federated Wiki, Mike. I think movement toward at least some of us paying for things we’ve got used to being free (until they disappear or are ruined) is also part of the solution. Pinboard. Feedly has a paid tier, but that can’t be their entire business model, is it? Apple’s Pay Once & Play, although of course that has more to do with apps than the web. Gah, any successful new directions are of course going to have to include apps. And, that’s about enough rabbit holes for one comment.

        p.s. Love the blogroll here! In a fit of nostalgia a few weeks ago I started a “links” page. Remember those? http://ourpla.net/links.html And then I let myself get distracted by Reddit for the first time, for some of the same reasons that FB & Twitter are so popular. (Though it feels more like a descendant of newsgroups than blogs.)

      • Mike, I think the key thing that Twitter and Facebook do well that RSS did not do well is subscription. Suppose I want to subscribe to the RSS feed for this site. Count the number of steps to do this.(I just did it, the number of steps is 6.)

        In Twitter if I want to follow someone, I just click on the Follow icon and it’s done. (It’s gotten a bit more complex over the years, but not much.)

        We identified that problem before there were any other RSS aggregators and came up with a proposal for everyone to follow to make it easy, but everyone invented their own buttons. I’m sure you remember the crazy mess of icons on websites, for a period, until people gave up on it.

        Also if you look at how the vendors supported RSS, they were creating their own namespaces with data in them that could have been represented just as easily using the common elements. Apple was the worst with their iTunes namespace. So writing an aggregator kept getting more complicated. Then there was the proliferation of RSS versions. And the flaming on the mail lists (if this goes on much longer, the flaming will show up here too).

        Google Reader came much later, and it did it’s own number on RSS by first dominating, sucking in all the other readers to their runtime and then shutting down. They couldn’t have done more damage if they tried. 😉

      • I’d say there were three things that Twitter and Facebook got right. Easy of subscription was one. Another was sharing – if I want to share this blog post on my blog, I either just provide a link (requiring extra work from my readers to go examine it) or I copy the text (which detaches it from your blog post, anyone commenting on it on my site don’t come back to your site nor are comments intermingled.
        The other thing is ease of discovery. In seeing some comments by people I follow, I get reminded of stuff that I can look for (hey! Weird Al >IS< here!) or people I'm interested in.

  2. Nothing to quibble with, but what does “win” mean? Facebook et al may be the fat of the long tail curve, but they’ve not conquered any more than Starbucks subsuming the coffee biz.

    Your stand also suggests the sole purpose of the web is reading to be informed.

    I’d agree from your comment to Dave Winerthat RSS was the list promise in the ability to have your pick of the 80 different interfaces or the abstracted content as information alone. One might hold promise of APIs but if RSS stalled for the cognitive overload of understanding the technology APIs are even more opaque.

    Winning of course does not mean giving up fighting for a different vision, and I count on you for keeping at that fight.

    • I had similar quibbles, Alan, but I also agree with Mike’s basic premise: You have to solve the problems that the market knows it has. You can’t hope to win by being more principled than the other guys. It’s much harder to do in a decentralized way, both technically and especially politically (and perhaps also economically), but if that is your bailiwick, then you have to find a way to do it.

      • Agreed “won” is too strong a word — I was really keying off the two articles referenced that I was replying to, which were emphatic the web was dead. I meant to phrase it as more of a reply to that critique.

        That said, I do think the idea of The Stream won out over the idea of The Garden, in as much as it is possible for anything to get overwhelming mindshare. And ultimately what bothers me about the stream model is it is so worked into the advertising model at this point that I don’t think Facebook or any other player is going to move away from it, even if it doesn’t serve our interests. (Even there “move away” is overstatement, I just want a balance).

  3. “You want to win against Facebook? Let go of the idea of people reading your stuff on your site, and develop or support interfaces that put your readers in control of how they view the web instead of giving the control to the people with the servers. Support people looking into federated recommendation systems. Make friends with the idea of full copies of your stuff flowing across the web instead of links.”

    I’m confused. How exactly does your assertion translate in practical terms? Am I to abandon my need as a designer and content creator to present my work in a manner the exceeds what the silos allow me to do within their UI? Am I supposed to be ok with not being able to bold or italicize my copy? If I want rich media to be part of a particular presentation, do I have to forfeit the ability to embed a video or audio file for the sake of being able to express myself in this brave new world? These are real questions, I’m not being sarcastic. I just need to better understand how this looks and works on a day-to-day basis.

    • Broadly, as I’m sure you know, these sorts of questions are why we develop standards, so that by agreeing what are core needs we can build things which are both functional and broadly usable.

      More specifically, you can look into this blog and read about federated wiki which provides one solution to this sort of problem using a js/json plugin system. It’s not something that can be easily explained because it’s not an easy problem. But if you are interested in the subject it’s worth a week or so of your time to understand how browser-based js-based plugins could a potential solution.

    • I – and I imagine Mike but he can speak for himself – would never want to keep you from designing your site exactly as you like. So if the insight that most users want a consistent interface while doing their daily reading, and you want your content to be available to them, the solution has to include use RSS or something analogous that allows aggregating software/services to present your content in ways that users prefer. (And of course they could offer a link so that users could click through to see your content in all of its native design glory.)

      RSS uses HTML, so it already allows for rich text. It also specifies how to embed audio/video (with the enclosure tag), which is what we use for podcasting. However, these embeds are not tied to a particular point in the text, and by convention are limited to one per post. So I guess multimedia embeds in text are a good example of one of many features that web developers would need to come together on, whether in RSS or some new technology, in order to attract a massive user base to an unsilo’d approach. RSS 2.0 (and 1.0, but that never really took off) are infinitely extensible, so without any update to the base specification anyone could add a way to do embeds in text. The trick as usual is getting a critical mass of web developers to use the same method.

      Dave Winer’s comment here points to Twitter’s easy subscription as another such feature. Can anyone point us to a good list of such features? We blogged about all of this heavily >10 years ago. Tim O’Reilly’s piece on the Internet Operating System also seems relevant here: http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/03/state-of-internet-operating-system.html

    • Yes, basically. If you publish something, then the consumer needs to get a copy. If the user got a copy, he can do with it whatever he wants. He can go with the design decisions of the author, or with those of his client developer, or with his own, or with those of an external service, which doesn’t mean that layouting isn’t needed any more, but there can be many of them and nobody maintains absolute control over them any more as the media isn’t physically fixed, but fluid and dynamical.

  4. I disagree strongly. Facebook winning had little to do with design as such. Their key asset is the social network.

    I get what you’re saying about the design jumble. But Facebook is more like a bar where you know all the regulars, or a family reunion. Ye Olde Web was completely chaotic when it came to carving out your audience. It was a random set of strangers that *might* include your network, but not necessarily. Facebook allowed people to choose their audience, from a pre-existing set of family and friends.

    However (and this is a big however), that means Facebook has no ownership of its prime asset. It’s extremely vulnerable to an Enron-like collapse, where suddenly people choose to go somewhere else. Picture a school of fish. Facebook is riding the school for now, but if it turns, Facebook is likely to be left with nothing but empty water.

    But what this also means is, Facebook depends on inertia. On people being unwilling to shake up that social network for a new one. And as anyone who’s been through a divorce or long-distance move can tell you, those shakeup happen. Over time, they accumulate. And Facebook has little to offer anyone to return if they make the first break.

    • I think you are correct for early Facebook, but not for Twitter, where the simple, consistent interface was a big benefit right from the start. At some point (2007?) Facebook saw what Twitter was doing and repurposed their ‘status’ feature to make it more like the tweet-stream, and here we are.

      Mike may have over-emphasized the benefits of a single consistent interface but I think the general point stands that it’s easier to integrate a bunch of streams generated by one website/service than many different ones.

      You have definitely identified one of the most important features in the social network, which as you say, can move fairly easily (Friendster->MySpace->Facebook). The next move will only happen if a new silo, or a distributed network, offer a feature set – around the social network and in general – that is as good as the current incumbents.

      Or “good enough” but with some other compelling benefit that none of them are offering, and can’t easily copy. Note that such a benefit could be as a result of new code, or as a result of a shift in consciousness. (E.g., enough of us were willing to pay to view ad-free, or to have high trust in our data’s security.)

    • There’s a big difference between RSS and Facebook/Twitter: only bloggers were using RSS, so the number of feed publishers and readers who are interested in blog content is somewhat limited. The use case for Facebook/Twitter replacements based on RSS technology would be, that there are service providers (like there are for e-mail) where one can create an account and essentially get the webspace to post their short messages and images with a client (be it web, app, native) about their personal lives instead of writing long form articles, and a way to mention/notify other people who use this standardized protocol too (who may be hosted by a different provider), etc., and you probably want to have a search engine on top of all RSS feeds, which could be found by crawling and registration in order to avoid RSS feeds in isolation. RSS in itself is fine, but there needs to be the optional extension to have networked RSS, so it’s basically the web (XHTML) with a timestamp and therefore chronology attached to it.

  5. Facebook did well since it has fix the curation problem people wasn’t even aware they have, and minimized the hassle of email chains we used to send/get to dozens of Cc at once before.

    The fact all contents are display the same way is just a technical reason. But the simple centralized + same ui for all content is not enough, the fact the “feed” url is now a real physical friend/human I know IRL is a game changer.

    Centralizing feeds in defined layouts/cards is just not enough. See how other startups like Flipboard or OnSwipe (with WildCard next on the list) and Google Reader failed pretty poorly by only focusing on this.

  6. This makes sense as an argument for why more people read, say, news articles from their Facebook feed than by navigating to CNN.com. (If that’s truly what’s happening–I’d want to see some metrics first.) But is that really why most people go to Facebook? As a glorified RSS reader for news articles? I’d guess that cat videos and snarky memes outnumber news articles on Facebook by an order of magnitude at least.

    I think Facebook “won” because they combined streamlined UI with a user experience designed to reward the brain’s pleasure centers and keep people hooked. They don’t shy away from dark patterns, either.

    Facebook changes its UI from time to time, not to make it better (there’s always a loud round of universal complaints each time, much of it legitimately pointing out ways in which Facebook’s UI goes against best practices) but to renew the small challenge of adapting which keeps people engaged.

    The real issue, where the Merry Luddites are concerned, is a bigger one: what kind of choices are we making about how we spend our time and what we fill our heads with? How is stuff like social media changing our societal values?

  7. So you are saying that we need a new Usenet?

    For those who don’t remember it (it still exists, but has been in decline since about 2001), it was/is a federated message board system. Since the user interface was provided by the client, it was consistent (and by choosing a different client you could get a different user interface). There were conventions on how to format the text, how to quote, etc. so even the messages had a relatively consistent look (of course, being text-only there wasn’t that much room for creativity). Subscribing to another “newsgroup” was simple, and at the height of its popularity there was a newsgroup for (almost) everything, so it was the single place for discussions.

    • Usenet is a great source of ideas and practices to build on, but we need something less tightly coupled than that, so that individual websites/apps can continue to have their own unique features, but can share rich content more effectively than RSS or Usenet do, and things like subscription (see Dave Winer’s comments here) / following / friending, quoting/responding, etc. work across different sites/apps/services. Altogether it has to be better or at least close to as good at this integration than the silos, and have advantages that make it compelling enough to overcome inertia.

  8. May I suggest some doubts? In my eyes, Facebook didn’t solve much problems but causes a lot. It’s hard to find relevant stuff (search is still rather weak). My personal timeline is based on “friends” of all kinds – job, sport, family, some “interesting people” etc., – it sums up to a lot of banalities which I stopped scroll trough a while ago. If Facebook has won over the use and freedom of internet it has won by turning the internet into a sort of personal entertainment plus personal address-book. It has won by psychology – “like”, “friends”, OMG-comments, etc. It has won because it has sucked in millions of non-bloggers into interaction with eachother who otherwise wouldn’t have much possibilities to interact. This has created a self-nurturing growth of reach.
    What you mention is mainly based on the shift to mobile – yes, Facebook as a 1-app-serves-it-all is a solution for mobile. At least, this is what they want to be in a few years,

  9. Interesting thoughts but in real world there is no best design. Different people likes different styles: modern, country, loft, etc. Some people love small towns, others – big cities. The critical thing IMO is data exchange. Facebook just become interactive TV why others remain local FM shows when several talks and rest are listening only.

    I started to work on Coect.net communication platform to implement free data exchange between independent hubs and let people choose UI and provider of service (like we do with emails).

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