First Class Service from a Classless MediumPosted: November 17, 2012
The summary of today’s post is that I’m not a fan of curve grading. If you’ve read enough from me about this before, feel free to skip this post. Now, I should note that a lot of what is in here is based on my observations of Facebook from the outside – there may be technical stuff that I’m missing because I haven’t had the time to dig down. Clarifications and corrections are welcome.
If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll see a lot of discussion about how people use (or misuse) Facebook but one thing that is becomingly increasingly apparent is that Facebook is trying to do a very difficult thing: offer different tiers of service on a system that is fundamentally not tiered. If you’ve been on a plane recently, you’ll know that you all get to the destination at the same time, regardless of how much you paid. The fundamental service of the airlines, getting you from A to B in a giant metal tube, is such that passengers on the same plane will all have the same experience in terms of travel time. This is, of course, why the differentiators in service revolve around the overall pleasure and comfort of the experience. Flying long-haul economy is a transport miracle but, that aside, it’s not a very pleasant experience. The seats are cramped, you’ll get at least a stiff neck and most likely ballooned legs from being jammed into the seated position for hours. Up in Premium, Business and First, passengers are stretching out, getting more food, have a higher ratio of staff to passenger and enjoy more access to much nicer toilets. But where did all of that extra space and service come from? Here’s a hint: the next time you’re in economy and wonder why you can’t stretch your legs, it’s because someone is paying more to enjoy some of that space up the front of the plane.
Facebook is, at its core, really simple. You create an account. People who are your ‘friends’ decide to monitor the things that you type. You monitor theirs. If you have an interest in a group or page, you’ll ask to see their updates as well. Updates can be displayed in date/time order (newest first) or by level of interest (how many people are talking about it). Well, it was that simple. Now, as you will know, there is an ongoing move towards restricting the degree to which information naturally flows from one person to another. Now, my friends will see most of my posts (unless they take some steps to change the way that they view me) and if I happen to watch a page from a business, the business needs to pay some money to FB to ensure that all of their followers receive all of their updates.
Facebook, in its simplest form, sends updates to interested people but, as the Facebook people have worked out, this does not allow you to easily impose a premium service over the top. You have a free water fountain that serves chilled water. Why would you buy a bottle of water from the guy standing next to the fountain? In this case, the guy owns the fountain and he decides that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Want to guarantee that you’ll never go thirsty? Better buy my water.
I wouldn’t have a problem with any of this if the base service was kept at a reasonable standard. I’m looking to shift my frequent flyer status for airlines to one of Air New Zealand or Singapore because, in all my experiences, their economy experience is absolutely fine. Plane goes from A to B. Seat is comfortable enough for 15 hours. Staff are nice. Food is fine. On my usual carrier, which shall remain nameless, it takes me longer to recover from the cramped conditions of their economy and aggravates my surgically altered left knee. (For the record, I’m 5’11″ and about 190lbs so I should fit into a seat without too much fuss.) Having flown premium and business on nameless airways, I can tell you that it’s fantastic but we have flipped from a below acceptable standard to above acceptable standard (in fact, the food in Business is excessive and gluttonous, in my opinion) without ever having settled on the minimum standard of acceptability for what is, ultimately, all of us flying together in the same metal tube.
Facebook used to have a base, acceptable service, that revolved around reliably showing me things from my friends. Where do sponsored links fit into this? They don’t, unless FB can inject unasked for content into my stream when someone pays them to. So, now, I am reading things from people who are not my friends, that I cannot control, because someone else is paying for it. Of course, the kicker on this is ‘why would you pay FB to do this?’ and the answer is ‘Only if FB would not guarantee universal delivery if you didn’t’. Now, people being people, if FB said “Hey, commercial accounts have to pay this but private individuals wouldn’t” then there would be a surprisingly large number of ‘private individuals’ trying to sell you stuff. So, because of human nature, when FB cuts down on people seeing everything that you post (requiring sponsorship to push ideas or to guarantee universal subscription) this is going to apply pretty much across the board.
Now, I am not paying for Facebook but it is becomingly apparent that I am being sold by Facebook because all of the downgrades that I am seeing are intended to provide a reason for people to pay to reach me as a consumer. My problem is, free or not, the way that Facebook is altering the service to make me as a product more attractive to a consumer is affecting my experience. They are forcing a vast majority of people into a second-class experience in order to be able to sell the default set-up as a first-class experience. There always will be some kind of load filtering on a system like this but this one, so blatantly and explicitly linked to selling reach, really makes you wonder what their long term plans are for their community.
Now, you’ll either be agreeing with me or disagreeing with me by now, as if you stopped reading out of boredom you won’t see this! So let me give you a first/second-class analogy from education: curve grading. If I have a fixed number of A slots in my class then, by extension, anyone extra who would have got an A MUST get a B in order to be able to grant the A’s to other people. Yes, we’ve sorted them by degree of A but, under our original terms, the student has done A-level work, we’re just not giving it to him or her because someone else is being prioritised up and, to preserve the experience of the A people, someone has to get Bs. More insidiously, somebody has to fail. We’ve now gone further than the airline or Facebook examples, because now the people in Business can require that someone be kicked off the plane. You don’t click on enough sponsored links, your login is rescinded and you have to leave Facebook. You may not care about air travel and, let’s be honest, it’s a giant privilege in any way you look at it. You might think “Hey, FB isn’t my life and it’s not like I’m paying for it” and that’s very true.
But carving out a new ‘premium’ experience that is the old ‘fair and general’ experience and doing so by forcing other people into a second-class experience is a pretty lousy way to treat people and, in my opinion, it’s worse when those people are your students and you make them competitive through an artificial resource scarcity, based around some mistaken notion that this is a reasonable thing to do. You don’t have to think hard to come up with examples that quickly demonstrate how broken this kind of system is. Facebook bugs me but it won’t cause me too much grief if it goes away tomorrow. A student’s academic progress, GPA and their own confidence? All too important to put into an artificially imposed additional classification scheme that forces classes where they may not belong.