As a sophomore at Harvard in 1996, I received a physical copy of “the facebook” for my dorm. Inside was a directory that included each student’s name, photo (black and white), phone number, email address, mailing address, room number, and major. We hadn’t yet thought up or devised a way to use computers for mass flirting/stalking/photobombing, but even then the physical facebook was weird. I would see someone in the dining hall and not know how I knew she studied biological anthropology and lived in F-33. I creeped myself out on more than one occasion.
As Facebook approaches 1 billion users and $5 billion in annual revenue, its digital iteration has far surpassed its predecessor. Its scale adds resonance to its mission “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” And that’s why it stinks that the company’s unstated goal is “to force awkwardness on us as much as is algorithmically possible.” My qualms with Facebook are many, but nothing stokes my fury like its endless fiddling with the feature that needed the least amount of innovation: email. Let me share a recent story with you. I needed help finding an apartment. I identified 54 Facebook friends in the New York area and sent them a group email. I closed by saying, “Please don’t reply all to this message. I’m pretty sure Facebook won’t let you, but just in case. . . .”
It’s 2012; Facebook defaults to reply to sender, right? Nope. It is impossible to reply only to the sender of a Facebook message addressed to multiple people. The default, and in fact only, way to respond is to reply all. WTF?
It gets worse. On the Q&A site Quora, a former manager of Facebook Messages addressed this consciously idiotic decision by explaining that (a) the reply feature wasn’t used much, (b) you could always just forward the group message back to the original sender, and (c) it “feels nice” to have a simpler messaging product.
Sure, I technically could forward a message back to the sender in order to reply. I could also reply to the sender! When Facebook gets deeper into voice messaging, will it force me to look at the ID of an inbound call and then use my other phone to initiate a new call back rather than just answering the phone call?
It gets worse. Now that I’ve unintentionally invited 54 friends into a reply-all festival of nonsense, people want out. So they “leave this conversation,” announcing this fact every time someone exercises this self-preserving option. The upshot is anyone who actually has valuable information about an apartment for me will choose to keep that knowledge to herself and leave me to roam the streets of New York with a sack over my shoulder. All because Facebook makes it too annoying to share the information, which, remember, is Facebook’s stated mission.
It gets worse. Facebook now shows the exact time at which recipients see your messages. So now I know you saw my email–and chose to ignore me. I can’t blame you, but let me assure Facebook: It does not feel nice.
Recently, I met two Harvard seniors who had deleted their Facebook accounts. “How do you know things!?” I asked them. “Email!” they said. “Email and Gchat. It’s much easier. Facebook is annoying.” I don’t know if I have the strength to pull the plug, but this rejection–on the campus that started it all–serves as a healthy reminder. It’s frustrating to see a company that has innovated in many ways impose its awkward definitions of “social” onto a billion people. We’ve opted into a very imperfect system. And we have the power to opt out.