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For a social network predicated on making friends, Facebook sure doesn’t know how to build trust amongst its users.

As we’ve pointed out in previous articles, from time to time it seems like the people running Facebook have no idea what they have created. In fact, the platform often feels like its more of an experiment than a work in progress, lurching and leaping rather than moving steadily in a direction. And it’s that very sense that Facebook itself doesn’t know where it’s going that frequently has its members running around in circles, complaining rather than praising the site.

Every few months, Facebook makes changes that upends its users sense of stability and control over their presence online. Just after learning how things work in the system, members feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them with each new “enhancement” released by some unknown programmers somewhere in cyberspace. While some of the changes are obvious and “public” – such as the revamp of the news feeds – others are behind the scenes. Changes to how our information appears and is shared with others – and other sites – leave many of Facebook’s users with a sense that something sneaky is going on with their data. And that ultimately they have very little control over it.

Control is a key factor in building trust for any brand, and not just for control-freak generations like Boomers and Gen X’ers. Having a sense of being in control of your products and services – from how they operate to what they can help you accomplish – is what creates loyalty and advocacy. Whether it’s the sense of safety and control over a power tool or the command-feeling behind the wheel of your favorite automobile, consumers want to feel like they are in control of their products and services.

Some people might argue that users of Facebook are not really consumers: since they don’t pay, they really shouldn’t complain about things like control. That argument holds little water, since it’s clear that Facebook not only generates advertising revenue, but will ultimately need to create other sources of income from its users once its generousity of running the site for free runs out. This lack of control – plus a sense of “who thought of that?” with each release – is laying the groundwork for a smarter social network to come along. When users have no sense of where a company is going or whether it’s heading in a direction they will ultimately like, they are ripe for a change. And online, it can happen by the million in a flash of an eye.

If Facebook wants to head-off a mass exodus by an upstart with even the appearance of having solved these problems, it needs to look at a number of critical areas that continue to annoy (if only just below the surface) millions of its users every time they use the site. Here are some suggestions for the short list for making Facebook better.

  1. Tell users where Facebook is going. While most users are content to use Facebook in a totally self-centered way, there is still a need from its members to know exactly where Facebook is going. This does not require pinpoint precision, but at least a general sense of what they are trying to accomplish and how they see the future will help members decide if they are on the right ship or not. Facebook runs a very serious risk of “social networking exhaustion” amongst ordinary users – the point at which people really run out of things to broadcast about themselves, and move from frenetic multiple uses per day to casual few-times-a-week usage. LinkedIn has already reached this point; Twitter usually loses new members within a month. If Facebook’s users are going to stay for the long term, they might want to know where the network is going, and why they should remain part of something bigger and better – a goal they will help accomplish – that goes beyond updating their sphere of influence on their breakfast cereal choice that day.
  2. Stop touching users privacy. While it’s nice to think Google pulled out of China because of a true commitment to fighting censorship and oppression, the real truth is that it was afraid millions of users might think its email systems were unsecure, and their privacy (and in some cases, lives) were at stake by using GMail. Facebook is dangerously close to the same tipping point. Every behind-the-scenes change to how its members information is posted to others, shared with applications and made available to third-party sites increases the liklihood that  Facebook is one media-driven news-story away from a mass exodus. It will only take one high-profile tragedy – nebulously linking Facebook and privacy concerns – to see tens of millions of still-internet-wary Baby Boomers close their accounts. Even younger users, who seem content to have their most intimate personal thoughts and images sped around the web, might start to think twice when some small change to their privacy settings crashes an important relationship – or a job offer. Facebook needs to seriously enhance and simplify – because nobody really seems to know how their privacy controls work and what the settings really mean – the control over its users personal profile and shared information.
  3. Put real “help” Into the Help center. Facebook may be free, which means there’s no technical support hotline to call, but it doesn’t have to be dumb. And that’s exactly what you find inside of the so-called Facebook Help Center. It’s simply dumb: Answers are cryptic and half-baked. Requests and suggestions from members for obvious tweaks fall upon deaf ears. The majority of comments by users on the answers provided fall into the “that’s so dumb!” category. For a site that supports trillions of words, images, and videos a day, the sheer paucity of answers, examples and graphic explanations in the help center is amazing. Too many answers fall into the “yes/no” category, leaving users once again with a feeling of little control over their activities and personal information. Improving the help center would go a long way in helping members understand what’s going on, what they can do to improve their control and experience, and clarifying the misconceptions that run through the network regarding just what happens when you click certain things.
  4. Call in the tailor. Facebook’s “one size fits all” approach is maddening to many of its users. In a world dominated by “i-” and “my-” products and services, the “our-way-or-the-highway” settings in Facebook are glaringly old school. They remind us of the old days when you could have any color Ford you want, as long as it was black. Most of the user control tweaks requested aren’t rocket science, either, yet there appear to be few scientists in Facebook headquarters. Most users simply want to turn certain things off: the endless cataloging of their recent activity on their walls, the pollution of their newstream by gaming application announcements, the inability to priroritize which friends you want to watch “more” than others, and other simple changes would go far in giving each user a personalized experience with the system. Creating a sense – through what seems like simple filtering options and off-switches – that it’s Facebook “my way” would definitely increase loyalty and satisfaction. Even hamburger joints learn long ago that you had to let consumers customize your mass-produced products.
  5. Fade to invisible. The best products and services quickly become transparent to their users. Once you master a pencil, the keyboard, the steering wheel and the Wii controller, you should not have to think about how they work or where key functions are any longer. Good products don’t focus the user on themselves, but on the experience or outcome the user is trying to achieve. The pencil’s eraser isn’t about the rubber, but about the ability to quickly fix mistakes and continue writing. Yet too much of Facebook is about Facebook. It’s interruptory features draw people’s attention to it, rather than helping them stay focused on their goals. The beauty of modern-era products like the iPhone is their ability to move people beyond struggling with using the product’s buttons and features, and getting them to a place where their needs and wants are being gently and invisibly met. Today, Facebook is still too much “in the way” of its users desire to network with each other. It’s facilitating in many ways, but also debilitating in others, the end-game of keeping people talking to each other by itself, rather than by phone, email or competing communications tools. If Facebook wants to create long-term loyalty, it needs to learn how to fade to the background.

Certainly, there are other ways Facebook could improve. None of these suggestions should take away from their already remarkable achievement. Facebook’s February 2010 ranking as the number one most trafficked site in the United States – beating long-time champ Google – is clearly a sign they are doing much right. But internet users are fickle and things change in the blink of an eye. Facebook should take nothing for granted about its dominance. It should learn the lessons of MySpace.

The simplest solution for Facebook to improve itself is to use itself as it was designed. Start listening to its users, not its programmers (or whoever exactly is making some of these decisions). It needs to generate future enhancements that cause millions of users to cheer, not post “Facebook is at it again…. copy this to your update!” reactions to change. For a system that enables so many ordinary people to talk to each other, it’s shocking how little listening Facebook seems to be be doing of its own users. All of which arguably leaves Facebook today teetering on the edge of something dangerous: a slowly growing but palpable feeling by too many of its users that they don’t know where it’s going, what it’s doing with their personal data, and if they have any control over what they have already done with their personal lives online.

As we’ve seen too often in the past, the ordinary netizen online will only tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty and experimentation. Whomever is at the helm of Facebook needs to realize that their creation has grown far beyond their whimsical control. A system designed for the input of millions of users ultimately has its strings pulled by them as well. If Facebook continues to try to control the dance, it will only create the conditions for a smarter, better system to come along saying it’s everything you love, plus none of the things you hate, for the social network exodus to begin at the speed of web.