Facebook and the two minutes’ hate

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother enforces a regular two minutes’ hate to ensure the citizen-slaves are fully au fait with the enemy of the day. It’s a term that originated in WWI’s artillery bombardments and is now mostly evident fully fourteen letters later, on that other battleground, the WWW.

Today’s enemy – as on so many other days – is Facebook. If it’s Wednesday, it must be another home page revamp. This latest change does away with those pesky ‘Top Stories’ and ‘Recent News’ options, which always used to default to ‘Top Stories’ even though I never, ever wanted anything other than Recent News. Now they’ve inflicted some cockamamy algorithmic hodgepodge that combines those two options, and the entire internet has exploded in a fireball of wtf and zomg.

This is not Big Brother’s doing: nobody at Microsoft or Google or Apple pressed a blue button marked with a cuddly sans serif f and sat back cackling with a smartphone full of white, fluffy lolcats. This is entirely a bottom-up reaction. Were I a lazy reporter desperately scrambling for a headline, I might even make some cackhanded pun on Arab Spring. But I can’t think of one right now.

People despise change because we are creatures almost entirely of habit. We might like to think we have will and self-determination and can stay up all night if we want to, you can’t stop me, mum. But we don’t. We laugh at dogs and their pavlovian reactions, and then it’s 4 o’clock and time for tea, oh and I mustn’t miss today’s Pointless I do like that nice Alexander Armstrong, don’t you? and the punched paper tape loops through our brains one more time.

Slow, gradual changes are easily accepted, embraced, like a frog being slow-boiled. I bought a cheapo wifi-capable printer last week, now perched on an ex-server in my spare room together with the military-grade safe in which I keep its priceless ink. The first few times I walked past the room my inner lizard shouted There’s something in there – it was a new, unexpected pattern on the retina and I turned my head involuntarily. Now, meh, I’ve been retrained. The new pattern is absorbed, the newness has gone, the routine is back.

More radical change takes longer to process. In a new house you’re constantly jumping and starting at its various ticks, cracks and wheezes, getting lost in cupboards and locking yourself in fridges. And all the time you’re swearing like a navvy on jankers. Your brain is clunking and clanking away rewriting the paper tape, and your eyes spin like the MacOS X hypnowheel (other operating systems are available) until the updated universe can be paged back in.

Thus it is with Facebook’s latest update. Millions of people are using the site’s various existing features, which they railed against last time they were changed, to protest these latest modifications. In a couple of days the chances are the Facebook juggernaut will thunder on to its next redesign unperturbed by self-immolating gifs and its users will wonder why they were all worked up about it in the first place.

That’s not to say I like the changes. I think they’re daft. And here’s why.

Let’s look at the UI. There are arguably four focal points: the icons at top-left next to the word ‘facebook’, which gain red numbers when something interesting happens; the list of stuff that seems to change in a way I don’t quite understand down the left (favourites, lists, apps) which gain blue-grey numbers when something interesting happens; the main body, which updates in a way utterly unfathomable to mortals, gaining and losing ‘recent stories’, ‘top news’ and other sections when something interesting happens; and the ticker on the right, which updates in a hazily understood way when something interesting happens.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a lot of something interesting and a lot of I don’t know what makes something appear here. Oh, and some of it may appear in multiple places.

I’m not interested if you have figured out how each of these sections works and when it updates. Well done, have a banana. You are special. The point is, most people don’t. To most people, the way all this works is mysterious and magical and they just hope to jebus that they can find the thing they want to when they need to. This is not because they are dumb, it is not because they are lazy. It is because they just don’t care enough to work it all out: their goal is not to understand all this. To a first approximation their goal, to use the sainted jwz’s expression, is to get laid (link is geeky, SFW!).

Facebook’s current incarnation does not make this any easier than its last. It makes it harder, because the vital goal-fulfilling information is scattered amongst the something interesting and I don’t know what makes something appear here sections.

In Joel Spolsky’s words, the fundamental rule of user interfaces is: “A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would”.

Facebook does not behave how users think it does, because most people have no idea how it behaves. There are too many places where slightly different, possibly overlapping pieces of information are presented in slightly different ways, and those pieces of information are chosen using slightly different, possibly overlapping, closely guarded, unfathomable algorithms.

Which brings us to the end of today’s two minutes’ hate. I think I overran. Ah well, time for a cup of tea and Pointless.

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