Learn the Most From Your Followers

Facebook and other social networking sites should listen closely to their users.

ByABC News
September 11, 2008, 4:36 PM

March 27, 2009 — -- If you've been tracking the news from the tech world the past couple of weeks, chances are pretty good -- especially now that the company has more members than most nations have citizens -- that you've heard about the latest hot water that Facebook has found itself in.

In the newest "scandal," online social network goliath Facebook tried to redesign its home page to give it more "Twitter-like" features -- a not-unexpected move after the company was rebuffed in its attempt to buy the real company. But Facebook's 175 million users -- or at least the noisiest couple million of them -- would have none of it.

We know that because a couple months ago, in an effort to forestall a repeat of its two previous "scandals" -- the Beacon program that shared (sometimes embarrassing) user purchase records with its Facebook "friends," and a change in terms of usage that gave the company ownership of all information on user self-designed pages -- Facebook decided to let its users vote on all new changes to the site.

Now, in the first real test of this user plebiscite program, Facebook's latest information mining/money-making scheme has gone down in flames. The actual vote was 80,400 for the new design and more than 1.2 million against. Comments ranged from "This new look sucks big time" to "This is just about the worst thing ever."

I'd say that's a pretty decisive victory for the status quo.

In his blog, Facebook's director of product, Christopher Cox, tried to put a positive spin on the results, while still rationalizing similar moves in the future: "Redesigns are generally hard to manage, in part because change is always hard and in part because we may miss improvements that any individual user may like to see. We keep in mind that there are 175 million people on Facebook, and everyone uses the site differently."

In fact, Facebook did stick with a few minor changes to the page, and although it did get some negative comments, they were nothing like the avalanche following the big change.

As I predicted a couple weeks ago, this latest failure will not be enough to stop Facebook from continuing to try and implement new money-making features on its site. It has to: The original business models for most of the great Web 2.0, online community sites failed to elucidate a serious revenue model and, now, if those companies are to thrive, they are going to have to make real profits commensurate with their vast size.

But what interests me about the latest wrinkle in the Facebook story are the consequences for that company in trying to respond to the demand by the users for a say in future content decisions, doing just that and getting hammered in a different direction. My suspicion is that many companies right now are watching Facebook's problems and deciding that enlisting users in the strategic planning process is a terrible, terrible mistake.