Twitter recently launched a new design. I must have been part of a group to receive the new design early, because I was already perfectly comfortable with the new look when everyone else started angrily tweeting about it. In fact, my boyfriend was on Twitter as it happened and let out a cry of dismay. From my vantage point I tried to offer comfort:
That’s not to say that I too wasn’t initially dismayed. But once I recognised this gut reaction in myself, I took a minute to step back and look at the new design objectively. Once I did that, I realised it actually wasn’t that bad. Okay, I thought, I can live with this.
It’s a familiar story. Whenever a social network introduces a new layout or feature, people are up in arms about it. Another example is the introduction of the blue lines connecting conversations on Twitter. I have to say, this new feature took me a lot longer than the recent redesign to accept because it is a lot more disruptive. But now, I can see that it is useful. Before the blue line, if I wanted to see people’s conversations, rather than just fragments of them, it was a lot harder (well, there were more buttons to click). The blue line does makes it much easier to follow and join in conversations. Another example is the Facebook timeline, which resulted in an angry backlash from many Facebook users.
This got me thinking though – why is that people dislike changes to their social media channels? It surely can’t be that all new layouts and features are terrible. Surely social networks are doing something right – if things were really that bad surely we’d have all stopped using them by now.
One obvious answer is that people simply don’t like change. But as this article on Elegant Hack argues – and I would agree – this overlooks the fact that Facebook and Twitter have thrived precisely because people like change and because they weren’t happy with what was already on offer. Think of all the other social networks that have withered away. They lost out because new channels came along and did it better. We might, as the old adage goes, be creatures of habit (or, better the devil you know), but we also seek out the new.
The difference is, when it comes to social media channels introducing new features, the change is being forced upon the user in a way that takes control out of their hands. Most people who use Twitter and Facebook go to a certain amount of effort to personalise their profiles and to convey a particular persona. In this way social media becomes an extension of the user. It is my Facebook profile. But when Facebook introduces a new layout like the timeline, it is a reminder of where control really lies.
What’s more, we spend a lot of time on social networks. If you spend enough time looking at something it becomes deeply familiar. Even if, come to think of it, you don’t really like the way a social media channel looks, this familiarity is still comforting. An analogy might be the view from a window. For instance, the view I’m looking out at right now. I can see the buildings across the road and a patch of sky. The buildings are standard Amsterdam apartments, not particularly exciting or interesting. But if I woke up one day to find that the buildings had been knocked down in the night and replaced, I think I’d be shocked and probably a little upset. Even though a lot of the time I wish we had a more interesting view, I’d miss the familiar if it was disrupted.
These disruptive changes might be more readily accepted if we were forewarned or really felt that they benefited us. But often, as the Elegant Hack article points out, they are introduced without prior warning and we are rarely able to see the immediate need for change. Facebook certainly seem to have learnt their lesson and now give advanced notice, in a prominent place, about upcoming changes. They even offer the chance to test out the new features or migrate early out of choice – this gives a certain amount of control back to the user, but in the end everyone is still be forced to accept the new and a backlash ensues. So, even forewarning doesn’t necessarily help. Facebook recently introduced a new change that I really disliked – it is no longer possible to hide your profile from Facebook searches. I liked this feature because it meant people couldn’t look me up and I didn’t have to ignore friend requests from people I didn’t want to friend. It put control over who I friend in my corner. Suddenly, without that added layer of protection I felt very vulnerable. Even with forewarning, once the change was enforced I was still unhappy about it.
A poll in 2010, showed that Facebook scored 64/100 for customer satisfaction. This is significantly lower than Wikipedia, which scored 77/100. As this article about the poll points out, one possible reason is that Wikipedia’s user interface has remained relatively unchanged since it launched. This is interesting because, not only has Wikipedia not changed very much, it has always been very simple and functional. It doesn’t try to make the user experience interesting or dynamic in any way, it simply does what it needs to do and nothing more. Meanwhile, Facebook introduces layouts like the timeline in an effort to make the user experience more aesthetically appealing and exciting, and thereby ensure users spend longer on the site. But it seems most users aren’t interested in going to the effort of sharing attractive photographs of all their significant life events. They just want to tell their friends and family about their day and maybe see what their acquaintances from university have been up to. Put simply, we don’t tend to see the changes as necessary or valuable.
Change also puts us in a position where we have to relearn something that was once familiar. The learning curve is not, at least in my experience, very steep. But it is still disruptive when all you want to do is waste half an hour on Facebook.
So, as long as Facebook, Twitter and other social networks continue to introduce new features without warning, users will continue to complain. But it isn’t as simple as not liking change – it is about not liking seemingly pointless changes, it is about loss of control and familiarity, and it is about disruption. It is about social networks ignoring what the users really want. But as long as there is no better alternative out there – no substantive change in the social media landscape – we will probably continue to grumble for a day and then carry on happily tweeting.