Facebook Follow: The Twitter-Eater, The Preemptive Google Me-Killer

Up until a few months ago, I was using Facebook the same way I was using Twitter. That is, I was allowing anyone to follow me. But it was different. With Twitter, anyone can follow me without my approval. On Facebook, everyone needs my approval. Though perhaps ill-advised, I was simply blindly approving anyone. Then I stopped.

There was no single reason why I switched my Facebook habits, but I decided that I was going to start using the service the way Facebook made it seem it should be used: befriending only actual friends. I was a bit more lenient — I friended anyone I’ve actually met in person. Everyone else? Gone. I purged several hundred people, cutting my “friends” in half in one day. But now I’m realizing that’s not good enough.

With the launch of Facebook Places, there’s a lot of talk about it being creepy or a potential security nightmare. I think all of that is and will continue to be largely overblown. That said, I’m also sure there will be legitimate causes for concern with the feature — but mainly because people aren’t using Facebook the “right” way. Nor do I think Facebook actually wants them to.

You see, Facebook really did used to be all about friends. As in, your real-life friends that you could connect with online. But in their drive to be the center of the social web and promote sharing (of links, of data, of information, of everything), Facebook is mutating. The problem is that the original social graph isn’t built for this mutation. And we’re going to see that very clearly with things like this new location element.

Facebook wants us to share things more openly, but with Places, they have launched a feature that most people will want to keep close to the vest. They can’t have it both ways, right?

Well, actually they can. But they need to fundamentally change the way their social graph works. It’s a move that would be controversial — but hell, all Facebook moves are controversial. I think ultimately, this would be very beneficial — to both Facebook and the users.

Facebook needs to adopt a friend/follower system.

What I mean by this is that there needs to be a two-tier system for Facebook. On one level, you have the things you share with your friends. On the other, you have what you share with your followers (including your friends). To some degree, you can already do this. But it involves befriending everyone and using Facebook’s convoluted lists to distinguish your real friends. No regular user is going to do this. Ever.

Or, you can use the “everyone” setting (now the default) in your status updates. But I’m still not clear that anyone ever looks at these “everyone” updates besides Facebook, advertisers, and search engines. Facebook needs to allow you to have followers to make this data meaningful.

There should be a simple switch or button on the Status area (and not in some drop-down) that lets you determine if what you’re about to share should be with your followers or with only your friends. And the default should be to share with only your friends (unless you change that in the settings).

Basically, this would morph Facebook into Twitter on one level, and back into the old Facebook on the other. I’ve brought this up before — but again, things like Facebook Places are making this more important.

And it needs to be simple. Currently, the Facebook privacy settings remain a nightmare. Things need to be simplified further — into a followers or friends sharing scheme. All people would be followers unless you marked them as friends. And again, all updates would be done with a big, clearly-labeled switch in the update area — do you want to share this with FRIENDS or FOLLOWERS? It needs to be crystal clear.

Others actually have this sort of system in place. One perfect example that isn’t widely used is Foursquare. The app has a little-known “celebrity mode” feature which allows famous people who sign up for the service to have both friends and followers. Followers are people that you don’t have to explicitly approve, they’re just following you if they choose to. Friends, you still have to explicitly approve. With each check-in, you can chose whether to send the update to just friends or to all those followers. It’s so simple that I almost can’t believe Facebook isn’t doing it.

Since my great Facebook purge, I’ve noticed interaction on the items I post to my profile has gone way down. This is obviously because I have half as many people reading these updates but also likely because many of the ones I purged were followers from Twitter or elsewhere on the web who were more accustomed to the idea of interacting with stuff I share. I miss those people.

But again, I wasn’t actually “friends” with these people, so I’m not sure I want them seeing my location updates or pictures from my vacation. I’d like them as followers, that I can interact with if I chose to.

I know, I know. Fan pages. Facebook fan pages are bullshit. Pure and simple. The fact that Facebook makes you create another profile page that you have to update entirely separately is just lazy. Worse, these pages are crippled. There’s no good way to bring tweets into them (though you can pump them out from the page), nor is there a good way to share your content. They’re just awful. A hassle — nothing more.

So again, why not just befriend everyone and use the lists to managed who can see what? Because that’s also a hassle. And there’s the ridiculous 5,000 friend limit. Can you imagine if Twitter had that?

It’s simply time for Facebook to evolve the social graph. If they want to be the social center of the sharing web, they could do that with such an option. Forget the silly “everyone” button — move to the follower model. Allow people to opt-in to following others but allow that user to determine if they’re actually a friend, and as such, open to more information than a regular follower.

Obviously, this is more complicated than I’m making it seem. But it really doesn’t seem all that complicated. It would just mean a changing of the social graph once again. It would be messy at first. It would mean backlash. But ultimately, I think it would truly make Facebook the center of social sharing.

Until then, all these other networks are going to stick around and continue to grow. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I like the idea of Facebook taking it to the next level. I like the prospect of a network with over 500 million users being open to the concept of following. We would all gain a lot of new followers and also find a lot of new people to follow. More importantly, we would all gain and share a lot more information.

It would be a better-designed Google Buzz with 500 million users built-in. It would be a richer Twitter with five times the users. It would be a preemptive Google Me-killer. It would be great.