Has Facebook Become Too Cautious for its Own Good?

Update 9/9/08: I’m pretty sure I was wrong on some of the points of this article. Facebook agressively launches features, and despite the slow rollout of the new facebook layout, it’s created a small revolt which I expect to become a bigger one soon enough. Read on, I stand by my work, but know that I feel like I was off the mark on some points.

Two years ago, I was intimately involved in the Facebook News Feed fiasco. Facebook launched the feature, users (including myself) rebelled, Facebook had to code immediate changes to quell the revolt. The end result of the entire affair was a bruised but smarter Facebook. Since News Feed, Facebook has had more success with the Facebook Platform and prevented major rebellions over their failed Beacon launch. Oh, and Facebook overshadows its rival MySpace and continues light-speed growth.

A week ago, Facebook launched the beta of the Facebook profile redesign to very little fanfare. The response from the blogosphere and general users has been…

Well, there really hasn’t been one.

Sure, some users has opinions, but a lot of users have yet to switch to the opt-in system (I’m assuming it’ll eventually be mandatory to switch once the bugs are worked out). At least with News Feed, there was significant media coverage, passionate people on both sides, and the ideal outcome for Facebook: News Feed became a hit. The Facebook Platform had passionate people developing apps and huge adoption by users. But since then, things have slowed. Beacon has simply vanished without a second attempt (I still think it was a smart innovation, just an unfortunate deployment) the Platform has created user blindness to application invites and general application usage, and the new profile redesign has received little criticism, but as a trade-off, it has received no enthusiasm from its heart – the users.

Make no mistake: the Facebook profile redesign is not an innovation, but rather a reaction to the unintended side-effects of the Facebook Platform. To control application spam and reverse user blindness, they needed to do this. But while they were doing this, why not throw in a few innovations, like a FriendFeed-like interface? Or a publisher tool? Or a tabbing system?

But what if users don’t like it? Well, let’s slowly give them (and the news and blogosphere) information about it and make sure they aren’t shocked by the changes.

However, that solution has a side-effect: people don’t get excited. There’s been coverage of the redesign, but it’s been a slow and steady stream. The result is that lots of users hear about the redesign and, when it finally comes, say “eh.”

It’s important to get your users excited about new features and products. Sometimes it’s about buildup to a date (Facebook didn’t do any build-up) and sometimes it’s about surprising your users and delighting them (Facebook didn’t do this either). Facebook purposely lowered expectations about the redesign and never made any dramatics about the launch. The result’s well, nothing. No great fanfare, no great reaction, no great revolt.

The approach is simply too cautious – if you don’t keep your users excited about what you do, you become old and eventually lose them to hotter and smarter competitors. Facebook has been catching up to FriendFeed in features rather than leading the way in innovation. Facebook needs to take back its innovation mantle or it may see itself become the next MySpace.