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Three Thoughts on Recent Changes to Facebook

By Sree Sreenivasan | September 21, 2011 5:04pm

This summer, the launch of Google+ had a lot of experts salivating about whether it could be a serious challenger to Facebook. Google+, which appeared after other well-known social media flubs by Google, gained surprising traction, hitting 30 million-plus users within a few weeks.

But as I and others have been predicting, there was no way that Facebook would just stand-by and let Google+ eat away at its users or its buzz. After all, Facebook's eventual IPO and valuation (numbers thrown around start around $25 billion and go much higher) depend entirely on its ability to dominate of the social media landscape. Not only does it need its user base to keep growing well past its current 750 million number, Facebook also needs to appear invulnerable to all newcomers.

Over the last few days, the Facebook empire has struck back with new features that go at the heart of Google+ and Twitter. My thoughts on these changes.

FACEBOOK IS TAKING ON GOOGLE+ WITH ITS IMPROVED FRIEND LISTS. One of the main reasons to try Google+ is Circles, a way to share specific content with specific cohorts of people. Instead of sharing an update with all your friends, you can create cohorts of varying sizes and share updates and content with them them. Facebook, which has had a confusing and mostly unused Lists feature for years, is taking on Google+ directly with its improved Friend Lists. From an official blog post about this:
Want to see posts from your closest friends? Or perhaps you'd like to share a personal story with your family—without also telling all your co-workers. With improved Friend Lists, you can easily see updates from and share with different lists of friends. To make lists incredibly easy and even more useful, we're announcing three improvements:
  • Smart lists - You'll see smart lists that create themselves and stay up-to-date based on profile info your friends have in common with you--like your work, school, family and city.
  • Close Friends and Acquaintances lists - You can see your best friends' photos and posts in one place, and see less from people you're not as close to.
  • Better suggestions - You can add the right friends to your lists without a lot of effort.

Using a combination of these features, you now have more control over what you share with what kinds of people as well as the ability to see news feeds about specific groups of people you know. 

FACEBOOK IS TAKING ON TWITTER WITH ITS NEW SUBSCRIBE BUTTON. Someone's great observation, "Facebook is for people you went to college with; Twitter is for people you wish you went to college with," just might change soon.

While Twitter has flourished, in part, because you can "listen to" people who aren't your friends - celebrities, politicians, etc - Facebook has been about connecting you with people you know (or vaguely know; both of you had to agree before a friend connection can be made). But the new Facebook Subscribe button means that there is a way to connect with people you don't know (yes, it's always been the case that the so-called fan Pages allowed you to follow someone without knowing them, but until now, it was not possible with your Facebook personal profile).  From an official blog post about this

The Subscribe button also lets you hear from interesting people you're not friends with—like journalists, artists and political figures. If you see a Subscribe button on your favorite blogger's profile, this means you can subscribe. Just click the button to get their public updates right in your News Feed.

While this may not cause true devotees of Twitter to stop using it, there might be Facebook fans, who haven't been as convinced about Twitter's value, who find fewer reasons to visit 140-character land.

FACEBOOK WILL SURFACE MORE RELEVANT CONTENT WITH THE NEWS FEED CHANGES. Facebook is looking to make more relevant content show up more often, so that you will be tempted to visit more often. Two of its changes to the News Feed make this possible. The first changing what you see at the top of the feed when you visit. From an official blog post about this

When you pick up a newspaper after not reading it for a week, the front page quickly clues you into the most interesting stories. In the past, News Feed hasn't worked like that. Updates slide down in chronological order so it's tough to zero in on what matters most.  

Now, News Feed will act more like your own personal newspaper. You won't have to worry about missing important stuff. All your news will be in a single stream with the most interesting stories featured at the top. If you haven't visited Facebook for a while, the first things you'll see are top photos and statuses posted while you've been away. They're marked with an easy-to-spot blue corner.

If you check Facebook more frequently, you'll see the most recent stories first. Photos will also be bigger and easier to enjoy while you're scrolling through.

And Facebook has also added a new feature called Ticker, which shows you what your friends are upto right away. The official blog explains: 

Ticker shows you the same stuff you were already seeing on Facebook, but it brings your conversations to life by displaying updates instantaneously. Now when a friend comments, asks a question or shares something like a check in, you'll be able to join the conversation right away. Click on anything in ticker to see the full story and chime in — without losing your place.

Mashable, the social-media news site, has a good visual guide to all the changes and you can see it here.

It's going to be fascinating to see how these changes affect Facebook usage as well as their effect on other services. Will Google+ unleash some changes? Will Twitter? Or will the sentiment of one of my colleagues add to the feeling of "Facebook fatigue" that some folks already have? "Facebook has gotten really annoying recently," he wrote today. I'll revisit this topic in the weeks ahead.

What do you think of all the changes? Post your comments below using your Facebook account or on Twitter @sree.

Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan shares his observations about the changing media landscape.