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The Gawkerization of Facebook

Is there anything less appetizing, content-wise, than a mature web property? I say that as we see a bunch of companies limp to and past middle age, demonstrating -- yet again -- that when a website has a midlife crisis, it doesn't buy a Porsche. It tries to become TV.

Gawker was the first to reach this unlovely life-stage, naturally, since it was a relatively early blog and Nick Denton is a certified evil genius. I take no position on whether or not Gawker Media traffic is up or down, and I am confident Denton's sites are meeting whatever metrics of success he's set for them. (That's what makes him an EG.) But are they interesting? Not to me. I was a very early Gawker reader but haven't looked at it in years. When it started, it wasn't an MSNBC competitor. Now it is, and I don't read MSNBC, let alone it's competitors.

The first time I laid eyes on the forthcoming Facebook Timeline feature, I immediately thought of Gawker. And then of TV. And then of how Gawker was trying to become TV and how apparently now Facebook was, too. I think going mass, and -- better -- becoming a mass of infinitely individualized niches is probably good business, but I don't enjoy it. That's about the time I start looking for the door. I might just be an early-product-life-cycle consumer, if there is such a thing. (In the early days of alt rock, I think we used to call these people pretentious assholes.)

Why might that be? Where do they lose me? I think part of it might be that what I'm really interested in is writing. I say that in the lowest-brow way possible. I like snarky writing. I like informal writing. I like long writing. I like short writing. I really don't care, but my expertise -- and thus my fandom -- lies in the written word. And there's a point in the life of every website where it makes business sense to go beyond writing, to other, more expensive, supposedly more compelling media. This is the idea behind enhanced ebooks -- that books really contain platform agnostic stories that can be elaborated in a dizzying variety of other media.

But they also contain writing. That's what I like. And there's a point where a site steps away from writing to such an extent that they leave that space entirely vacant -- waiting for another site to occupy it. The Awl follows Gawker, perhaps, or G+ follows Facebook? Not sure those are the right analogies, but I do know that when sites cross over into that place where writing is instrumental and incidental, I stay behind and probably always will.

" Plus Ça Change" is a daily column on (but rarely about) Google+. For archives, RSS, and email subscriptions visit http://jimhanas.com/pluscachange .
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8 comments
 
I completely agree. I've never been a fan of Facebook. I just don't like it. Maybe it's because I'm not social by nature. Not anti-social, but not social. I tolerate Facebook for a couple of reasons. But I watched the f8 conference livestream and MZ made me want to puke the collective mass of humanity's guts out.

But on the "becoming TV" phenomenon - the Web's version of jumping the shark - I think it's because once they reach a certain size (and this isn't just a Web business phenomenon; it's a business cult-like mentality), then shareholder interests become more important than user/customer interest. All decisions are based on what will make the property profitable. Loss of user/customer base is figured into that CBA. It's the dirty side of capitalism that is often defended with zeal despite its obvious flaws.
 
+Allen Taylor Completely correct analysis. "Then shareholder interests become more important than user/customer interest." The upside of this business logic is that it virtually ensures that monopolies will be self-defeating. I like that.
 
"The upside of this business logic is that it virtually ensues (sic) that monopolies will be self-defeating."

Only so long as they don't become "too big to fail," +Jim Hanas
 
"Then shareholder interests become more important than user/customer interest."

The market's insatiable insistence on continual growth isn't sustainable; never has been, never will be. Way too many businesses go under not because they are bad businesses, per se, but because investor expectations were unrealistic and few dare defying the market.
 
I don't really care what services like FB want to be if they allow me to maintain control over what I'm doing with them. FB doesn't, so I spend more time on G+, which does.
 
For whatever reason, facebook has started to feel like a chore. I will probably keep an active account to stalk my teenage kids properly, but I'm feeling kinda done with it.
 
Excellent piece, Jim. Elsewhere I refer you to my poetic tirade in ONE SOUL DIVERTED: "The televisions are bent on pure dominance." It was always an illusion that ANYTHING in the computer world, including Google, and certainly Facebook, was not run by advertising revenue, or the perverse promise of such. And therefore at the bidding of the same old companies. It only seems to free to consumers who fail to calculate how expensive their whole lifestyle addiction to technology has become. The economic model has never changed.
 
One lesson is that is incredibly hard to build and maintain a consistent user experience. That's why people spend years studying consumer patterns, interfaces and outcomes, and still rarely get it right. And why Steve Jobs is truly a genius.

For these web properties, they start with a foundational user proposition: FB was connect and keep tabs on friends in a private network that overlaps with other private networks. As they gain more investment and scale, they try to extend the core user experience to incorporate other attributes, sometimes to improve functionality, sometimes to improve experience, but often times to increase commercial opportunity.

FB's core premise was fairly uncommercial and contained. As they expand the focus, the weaknesses in their user experience knowledge is more apparent.

Note: I am using user experience to refer to the entire experience the user has with a product or service, not just the interfac and design. 
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