(Well, a little the morning after my birthday, but more on that later.)
On my birthday yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the well wishes of friends, family, former colleagues and people I’ve never met who somehow connected with me digitally. It’s a wonderful experience and a challenge to keep up with just “liking” each birthday wish, let alone responding to them.
I spent my birthday in the hospital, starting my second stem-cell harvest, so it’s been doubly meaningful (I’m back for more harvest today). A hospital is a boring place to be a patient, never festive on the oncology floor, no matter how kind and attentive the staff (and the staff at Our Lady of the Lake have been terrific).
But the stream of well wishes on Facebook from friends as distant as Siberia and Egypt brought a festive touch to the day. Not quite as cool as the calls and texts (and even a few old-school birthday cards) from family or the handmade cards from my granddaughters. But really special. And appreciated.
I don’t know whether Facebook is helping newspapers (giving them a new publishing platform with Instant Articles) or whether it is killing them (do I need to explain that?). But Facebook reminds me in a lot of ways, good and bad, of newspapers.
Loyal customers of newspapers complain of ink rubbing off on their fingers, canceled comics, bad grammar, late delivery, liberal (or conservative) bias, yada, yada, yada. I complain regularly of Facebook’s crappy user experience: changing my news feed from “most recent” to “top stories,” a news-feed algorithm that doesn’t give me what I want, clueless use of data, awful mobile apps, yada, yada, yada.
Literally, while writing this post, I found a bad feature of Facebook’s birthday-greeting UX after I wrote that paragraph. That was going to be enough picking on the UX for this post, but noooooo! Facebook had to go and clunk up even the birthday experience. A drug that’s supposed to stimulate the release of my stem cells stimulated the rest of me enough to wake me up in the middle of the night. So I thought I’d respond to some of the posts that included remarks beyond a simple birthday greeting. For most of the day, when I got a notification about a birthday greeting and clicked on it, I didn’t go to my actual Facebook wall, but to a special window with the balloons pictured above, and there I could catch up on all my greetings. Usually I’d just click through the “likes,” figuring I could respond later to the longer comments.
A few times clicking the notifications in my Chrome browser on my laptop would take me to my wall, where the only visible greetings were from people who actually posted photos (thanks, Joan Brady, Teresa Schmedding and Mike Reilley!). But usually clicking the next greeting would take me to the secret window where my birthday greetings were hidden. OK, maybe that was an effort to improve the UX. Maybe someone had complained about the things they had actually posted being buried on their wall by birthday greetings. And the occasional misdirect was just a bug.
But at 3 a.m. on the morning after my birthday, I couldn’t access my birthday greetings. What, no one ever read or responded to a birthday card the day after the birthday? What if Hallmark’s cards just vanished at midnight? Hell, it’s still my birthday somewhere! Why can’t I access my greetings? I wondered if it would work by clicking “see all” to go to my notifications page, rather than clicking from the pull-down menu on my news-feed page (as shown in the screen grab at the left). But even from the notifications page, I couldn’t get back to my birthday greetings.
I went back to my laptop and played around a little, clicking the notifications about a dozen more times, looking for birthday greetings under (“more”), scrolling down the left rail (on both my wall and my news feed). Nope, not available. Birthday’s over, Buttry, time to move on. Literally, I added six paragraphs to a post whose first draft was mostly positive because Facebook screws up one of its best experiences.
I’m going to get back to my Facebook/newspapers comparison shortly, but first a sincere thanks to everyone who greeted me. I hope I managed to show my appreciation with a “like,” but if you wrote more, I appreciated those words at the time and meant to respond to you personally. But I can’t. Because Facebook.
OK, deep breath. On my almost-final edit of this post, I was scrolling back in my timeline to find a recent complaint about Facebook to link to above where I mentioned that I sometimes complain. Well, down at the bottom of the day’s posts on my wall was a link to all my birthday greetings. Not sure why it was down at the beginning of the day (when the greetings started) instead of as my most recent post (since someone obviously posted after I went to bed). But I finally found it. And thanked a lot more people with more than a “like.” I considered deleting or rewriting the rant above. But it was a genuine Facebook experience. The fact that I finally found it doesn’t excuse the fact that clicking notifications wouldn’t take me there.
But I’m in a better mood now than when I wrote that. And I’m not going to bother finding links to earlier complaints about Facebook. I think you get that (and, I should note, other than having a birthday, complaining about Facebook is one of the best ways to draw comments on Facebook, so it’s not just me.)
Newspapers got away with lousy customer service* for decades because we were the best news source in town, or because people loved our crossword puzzles or our box scores or just couldn’t kick a lifelong habit. And maybe people put up with our service because we kind of held their towns together, connecting people in a special way and sharing important stories of community life. And maybe because getting your picture in the paper made lots of special days for lots of newspaper customers. (Not all pictures are welcome, of course, but that’s part of the news people count on papers for.)
Facebook gets away with its lousy user experience in much the same way. I have 17,000+ followers on Twitter, including close friends that I treasure. And I like the Twitter user experience much better than Facebook (though I have taken shots at Twitter, too). But way more of my family and friends are on Facebook. (FB users outnumbers Twitter users more than 4-1.) And, maybe it’s just because they’re “friends,” not “followers” (who could have 17,000 friends?), I do get more support in my medical treatment and more day-to-day conversation that (most days) make the annoying UX worth tolerating.
Facebook’s 1.5 billion users give it a way stronger base than any newspaper ever had, and probably stronger than the whole newspaper industry at its peak (certainly stronger than the U.S. newspaper industry). But the incredible importance of newspapers to their communities has diminished. Their circulation and advertising are spiraling downward, and they stay profitable by cutting the people and services that made that crappy service worth tolerating.
I don’t know whether Facebook will last for centuries, as newspapers have. Or whether, in the swiftly shifting digital world, it will collapse (or at least decline) as swiftly as it rose to dominance. But I do know this: All those birthday greetings today were as special as getting my picture in the paper. So I’ll comeback to Facebook tomorrow at least.
* Footnote: My broad generalization about newspaper customer service was unfair to a lot of people, myself included, who provided — and still provide — excellent service for a lot of newspaper customers. Many, if not most, newspaper employees tried and try to offer good service and a good experience. But it’s an accurate statement about the industry as a whole at the corporate level. No newspaper replaced its receptionist with a voice-mail moat or moved its call center offshore to improve customer service. Similarly, I know people at Facebook who have been helpful to me and who, I’m sure, care about users. But at the corporate level, user experience clearly isn’t a priority. If someone someday offers a better way of networking with friends, people will leave Facebook just the same way they left newspapers.