The fault, dear reader, is not in our users, but in ourselves
This past week, ReadWriteWeb published a post titled “Facebook Wants to Be Your One True Login” about Facebook’s plans to use Facebook Connect to integrate users’ Facebook friends with AOL Instant Messenger. This would have been little more than a minor tidbit of technology news, but something unexpected happened: Hundreds of readers apparently couldn’t tell that this blog post about Facebook was not actually Facebook itself.
The post rapidly received well over a thousand comments, a significant number of which were from frustrated and angry Facebook users who were annoyed that they couldn’t log in to chat with their friends, play FarmVille, or whatever. Many of these commenters additionally complained that they didn’t like this new Facebook interface.
Here are a few representative comments:
The new facebook sucks> NOW LET ME IN.wtf is this bullshttttttttttt all about. can i get n plzzzzzzzzzAll I want to do is log in, this sucks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1
That’s right — hundreds of people who mistakenly arrived at the ReadWriteWeb blog post didn’t know that they were not, in fact, at Facebook.com.
How did this happen?
A post by ReadWriteWeb Community Manager Jolie O’Dell confirms that, based on traffic statistics, the confusion arose when people arrived at the ReadWriteWeb article after entering Google searches for “facebook login.”
This is apparently how many users routinely access Facebook. Rather than entering a URL into their browser’s address field or using a bookmark, they type ‘facebook login’ into Google or into the address bar of a browser that automatically executes a search when anything but a URL is entered. Previously this took these people to the Facebook login page. But shortly after this article appeared on ReadWriteWeb, it rose to the top of the Google search results for ‘facebook login’. (As of this writing, this is no longer the case.)
Many of the subsequent comments from more savvy ReadWriteWeb readers derided the cluelessness of these befuddled users. And many found their bewilderment amusing. “This thread of responses is the single most awesome, tragicomic example of internet stupid I’ve ever been lucky to witness.” wrote one observer .
Reading through the pleas of these perplexed users is, indeed, amusing at first blush. After perusing dozens and dozens of similar complaints from embittered Facebook fans, however, one becomes deeply saddened.
Perhaps my favorite comment on the incident — because it evokes both the comedy and the tragedy of the situation — is this:
This thread reminds me of the time my grandfather typed his phone number into the microwave’s keypad, then wondered why his kitchen was on fire.(Seriously, that happened.)
A few of the comments step back from deriding the clueless newbies to speculate about what this means for the current state of web literacy. Dana Oshiro posted a thoughtful follow-up article on ReadWriteWeb titled “We’re Still Not Facebook: Lessons from Late Adopters” that encourages developers to “step outside of your own world of early adopters and look at your product through the eyes of a n00b.”
Focusing on the naivety of these Internet neophytes — whether with derision or with sympathy — may blind us to seeing the other ancillary causes that may have contributed to this episode. As others have eloquently demonstrated, large systemic failures are often the result of a concatenation of small, discrete events. Sometimes the “obvious” explanation of an error is only part of the true story.
For example, consider this: How did ReadWriteWeb appear at the top of Google’s search results? Google’s page ranking algorithm is, of course, frequently tweaked. Many of the latest enhancements have been in response to the rise of the “realtime web.” Google’s search has lately been giving priority to recent updates from blog posts, Twitter, etc. Combine this with ReadWriteWeb’s already hefty quotient of Google juice and you have one of the conditions for this failure.
In addition, as mentioned above, many of the users who went to ReadWriteWeb expecting to access Facebook expressed their displeasure with the new Facebook design. This reveals another dimension of the problem. Facebook has redesigned its interface twice within recent memory, much to the annoyance of many of its users. These changes typically appear without warning for people who don’t follow the industry closely. Users go to Facebook.com and suddenly have to contend with a new and unfamiliar interface. While it is difficult to imagine how people, looking at an information site like ReadWriteWeb, would mistake it for Facebook, it speaks to the turmoil that Facebook’s continual evolution can generate. Facebook is so confounding that nothing would surprise its change-weary users.
So there you have it. Three elements that, combined together, form the recipe for user confusion and frustration: naive users, an opaque and shifting Google search ranking system, and an unpredictably changing Facebook interface.
Note that two of these are not the fault of the user. It because of us — those who create the web’s user experience. While we certainly need to better educate users on how the web works, we also need to bear in mind that what we build needs to address user expectations. When we’re done laughing at the cluelessness of our audience, perhaps we should try to find better ways to communicate with them.