Monday, July 2, 2012

Facebook Enforces Email Feature and Users Aren't Happy

Image via Toro Magazine
If you have ever had a conversation with me in real life about Facebook, you would know it's my favorite social media whipping boy. Facebook really doesn't care about its users, except for how they might be exploited as a revenue stream. They don't test enough. They change on a whim. 

(Okay, yes, I love being able to keep in touch with old friends and have conversations with my college professors and high school teachers and chat with my husband, but I still don't trust the company.)

Over a year ago, Facebook launched Facebook Email, giving every one of its users the option to claim an email address ending with It was immediately ignored by the majority of its users, and articles like "Why You Shouldn't Use Facebook Email" and "Why You Won't Use Facebook Email," started appearing all over the web. There were many issues with this new "feature," from the usual worries about privacy on Facebook to the fact that it lumped every communication from a single source into one comment thread. And don't forget you couldn't use it in a regular email client. 

Facebook email had one major objective: To keep users locked into the Facebook website. The longer you stay on the site, the more likely you are to view and click on ads. The longer you stay on the site, the more information you are likely to share that can be sold to advertisers. Facebook may be free, but that's because you, the user, are actually the product they are creating. 

Last week, Facebook, in its megalomaniacal tendency, decided to overrule its users' rejection of Facebook email and replace everyone's email address with a Facebook email address. Savvy users noticed the change almost instantly, and began to outline how to change your email address back (Lifehacker instructions here). 

Now it appears that some users, even those who quickly changed their email addresses back, are missing some emails, and Facebook has even inserted itself into address books and synced those new email addresses. Gizmodo has a good rundown of what systems were affected, and you should probably go check your own phone and online address books to make sure your contacts haven't been affected. 

But despite this kerfluffle about email addresses, this episode is just one in a long string of Facebook changing from a site where you can "hang out" with your friends to a for-profit, publicly traded company that needs to show its investors that it can bring home the bacon. I have serious doubts that its current business model and its modus operandi of rolling out changes at the drop of a hat can sustain the company.

Let's get back to the fact that Facebook's product is not its site, it's you the user. If the product is free, you are the product. You are what's being sliced and diced and served up as 12 different kinds of fries to investors and advertisers. At this point, Facebook has reached a critical mass in acquired users. There is no way to recreate the amazing growth in new users that it has enjoyed in the past. So what Facebook will have to do is hold on to the users it has.

Changes like this "email consistency" move alienate users. Users had already voted on the Facebook email feature by not using it. Instead of respecting that and finding a different way to engage its users, Facebook just forced it on everyone, and didn't even make an announcement to say, "Hi Everyone, starting Monday, we're giving you this email address!" Transparency in the Internet age is critical to customer retention. By using a stealth option to enforce this new feature, Facebook angered a lot of its users and I'm sure there are some who are leaving. Not to mention the previously noted exodus of younger users, who are leaving because their parents are now monitoring them on the site.

If Facebook really wants to keep its web dominance, it needs to start listening to its users. A great way to do this would be to ask for information from focus groups, or work with influencers on the network. However, they have already tainted their credibility seriously, so any outreach they do will come at a great expense.

What's your view of the Facebook Email Debacle? Leave your thoughts in the comments.