Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Facebook Gap

Recently, ReadWriteWeb, a group journalism blog about creating Web content, had a problem. Before I tell you what the problem is, let me show you their response. One blog post had the problem. They found it necessary to add the following announcement to it.

Dear visitors from Google. This site is not Facebook. This is a website called ReadWriteWeb that reports on news about Facebook and other Internet services. You can however click here and become a Fan of ReadWriteWeb on Facebook, to receive our updates and learn more about the Internet. To access Facebook right now, click here. For future reference, type “” into your browser address bar or enter “facebook” into Google and click on the first result. We recommend that you then save Facebook as a bookmark in your browser.

Who needs that?

  • Comment#3: ok cool now can I get to facebook
  • Comment#5: The new facebook sucks> NOW LET ME IN.
  • Comment#6: when can we log in?
  • Comment#8: just want to get on facebook
  • Comment#9: please give me back the old facebook login this is crazy……………..
  • Comment#11: I just want to sign in…………
  • Comment#14: wtf is this bullshttttttttttt all about. can i get n plzzzzzzzzz
  • Comment#15: What is going on? You are totally confusing me. Knock-knock. Anybody there? Let me in. Katherine
  • Comment#17: All I want to do is log in, this sucks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

It goes on in that vein for a while. I hope that if you’ve read Monday and Wednesday’s posts, that you won’t say “oh for pity’s sake, how stupid can users get?” and instead look more closely at the matter. In this case, our best guess at what happened is this: RWW posted their article about Facebook. Google News considers RWW to be a news source - and in searches where there are a lot of news results in addition to web results, Google adds News results above the web results. It clearly labels them as “News results for Whatever” - but they are still the top results. And when your article with the words “Facebook” and “login” in the title is the top result for people who search for “facebook login,” a lot of them will click on it. You can see the comments they leave when they make the pretty rational assumption that if they Google for “facebook login” and click on the first result, they will be able to log in to Facebook there.

But if you’re reading this, that message that RWW posted probably baffled you. It baffled them - at first they thought the comments were a joke. You probably thought something like “how in the heck could people possibly think that this site is Facebook?” And that gap is exactly the gap in our perception as IT professionals that I’ve been talking about this week. We as a community are great - really, really great! - at making tools for other IT professionals, for prosumers, for people who engage with computers for their own sake. But we still have big problems making tools for everyone else, and that’s basically why Apple kicks our butt again and again.

The discussion about this has died down a bit, especially compared to the talk about Buzz and the iPad, but it’s lively enough. It spawned lots of good talking points. Ed Finkler claims that:

[most computer users] do not give a rat’s ass about how computers work. They want to accomplish certain tasks, and will do this in the way that is most sensible and direct for them. And the way they end up accomplishing these tasks within the multitasking window motif is typically not the way I would do it.

Over at Quiet Babylonian, Tim Maly opines that “If you are an interface designer, a brand manager or a security expert, your reaction to this incident should be one of deep humility.” I’m definitely with them. We gatekeepers, wizards, and Wise Women of the computer world should definitely be more aware of who is using the computers and the network, and why and how. The posts that I just linked to are a great start.

I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention counterpoints. “It is okay to expect people to invest a little time to learn how stuff works and to retain an adequate portion of that education,” barks Phil Crissman. I don’t think that he’s entirely right, but I definitely agree that one should reasonably expect people, once education has reached them, to stay reached. He also points out very coherently that asking Google to solve the problem is asking too much. There too I agree with him. This is not a technical problem. This is a problem with the interface between humans and machines, and it’s on the human side. That’s why I care about this as a student: I want to make sure that I and all my fellow students know that you can’t implement technical solutions to everything. People matter - and the way that people think is very unlike the way machines think. You need to take human factors into account, early, fundamentally, earnestly.

That’s the message of this whole week of posts, really: your technical skills exist in service to the goal of bringing together human effort and technical tools. If you simply add power to the tools and make them capable of more things, you haven’t done useful work yet: you must ensure that the tools are useful to humans and usable by humans. Especially by humans who aren’t you.