A shiny Mark Zuckerberg nervously revealed Facebook’s long-anticipated phone today. Or rather, he revealed that the Facebook Phone is not a phone.
The product is called Facebook Home. Zuck calls it an “integration,” but essentially it’s a slick skin for Android—a new interface that hides your apps and turns your wallpaper into your Facebook News Feed. New pictures and messages auto-load in a rotating screen show, and you can pop into any item to comment, chat, click links, and so on. If you want to do something old-fashioned like Gmail or Twitter, you must swipe past Home.
It’s nice-looking enough, for what it is. But what it is is an assumption that users want to use Facebook to filter everything they do with their smartphones. That’s not how Zuckerberg put it—he presented Home as a tool that lets people view the world through the lens of their friends. We don’t want a grid of apps when we swipe our phones on, he argued, we want to know who’s saying what, who’s doing what, and most of all, who’s trying to communicate with us. Putting friends first isn’t a bad concept for the smart-phone experience. But Facebook thinks that friends = Facebook and Facebook = friends. If this were ever true, it isn’t now.
Facebook’s biggest challenge today isn’t conquering mobile, creating the killer advertising format or even signing up users. It’s relevance retention. Few of us ever leave Facebook, officially. But how many people have stopped enjoying it, using it as much, or caring as much? The signal-to-noise ratio on Facebook has been degrading steadily, bringing us five unwanted ads or updates for every relevant item.
I don’t know what Facebook can do about this. Tools to quarantine real friends from duds haven’t caught on. Cory Doctorow predicted in 2008 that your creepy ex co-workers would eventually kill Facebook in just this manner. He was half right.
By now, your network is likely to contain more ex-lovers, ex-friends, ex-schoolmates and ex-colleagues than it does people you want to connect with on the daily. But he was wrong about Facebook dying, and about everyone abandoning it to hop on to the next social network.
Or at least, he’s not right yet.
Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown