Is Facebook a social network or a sociology experiment?
Each redesign, change in settings or added feature seems to invite this question: Is the site actually trying to see how much disruption people will tolerate? And yet they keep signing up: The Palo Alto, Calif., company now claims to have more than 800 million active users.
Facebook's latest exercise in testing their users' tolerance began Tuesday, when it once again redid the News Feed of friends' status updates. This latest change — less than a month after a major privacy-options revision – filters what you see based on how often you visit the site. If it's been days since your last login, you should only get "Top Stories" chosen by an algorithm vaguely described in Facebook's blog post. Otherwise, you view "Recent Stories."
That was sufficiently confusing that by Friday morning, Facebook had added a button to jump back to "More Recent Stories."
Meanwhile, a separate "ticker" at the top right constantly updates with everything your friends have done on Facebook. This can be fascinating but also feel like Facebook's attempt to distract you from Facebook. And you can't hide it unless you tinker with your browser's software.
Then on Thursday, Facebook announced that your profile will soon let you tell your entire life's story. Timeline — in testing for the next few weeks, although developers can try it out now — cleanly presents everything you've done on the site and lets you add pre-Facebook events, from birth onward.
Turning your Facebook profile into a sort of work-plus-play LinkedIn profile could be a powerful form of self-expression, especially for future users with less of a before-social-media backstory. But it also invites a privacy freakout when people don't take time to curate their history, hiding dumb postings and featuring their best moments.
Facebook also intends for you to flesh out your timeline with a new crop of optional apps that automatically share things you read, watch and listen to on the site. A Facebook version of the fascinating Spotify music service, for example, posts each song you play on your profile. Friends can tune in with one click, but they may also find that Facebook looks spammier.
This makes Timeline less of an autobiographical tool and more of a database of your media-consumption habits and, therefore, exceptionally useful to advertisers, who can target audiences far more precisely. The intelligence agencies must be jealous.
With these changes, Facebook is trying to solve real problems — the complexity of different levels of closeness, the fear of missing out on friends' news, rampant oversharing and competition from Google Plus. But it's also pursuing its own, vaguely messianic ambitions to change how we connect to one another.
Fortunately, you still control three things about Facebook: what you post there, whom you accept as friends and the "close" button above its page in your browser.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery.