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Facebook changes spark outrage, serve as warning

Posted by Rob Anderson  September 21, 2011 11:30 AM

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facebook.JPGIf we spent less time on Facebook, we wouldn't care so much. This morning, users of the social network woke up to a raft of changes, including "top stories" marked by blue triangles, a real-time ticker of "news" from friends, and a box urging them to "subscribe" to people -- which is somehow distinct from friending them. The initial media reaction has been fierce. My own Facebook "news feed" — or is it my "top stories"? — has degenerated into a kvetch-a-thon about the changes. One friend has signed off altogether. (He says now.) "Please," implores another, "someone tell me if there's a way to make it all STOP."

I don't like the New Facebook either, but let's take its sudden arrival for what it is: a healthy warning not to depend so much on proprietary social media. When we give a single company — whether it's Facebook or Twitter or Google — so much control over how we communicate with others, we're giving up an awful lot.

This isn't just true for individuals. A lot of businesses, including the Globe and its opinion pages, have been putting time and energy into these platforms. For many companies, establishing a presence on Facebook and Twitter is like opening up a Shanghai office — even though if you're not quite sure what to do there, you're pretty sure you need to be there.

And yet there was a time when businesses felt similarly about America Online, and put out ads reminding you of their AOL Keywords. (You entered them, I think, by pressing a pointed stick into soft clay tablets.) Eventually, someone may invent an open-source social medium — one that allows people to share vacation photos without giving them to Facebook and make witty banter without routing it through Twitter. When that happens, Facebook might think twice about a user interface that makes CNBC's screen layout look sedate.

In the short term, though, Facebook has us right where it wants us, and it's surely right to bet that users are loyal enough to stick around.

Twitter: @danteramos

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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