Obsessions: February 15th, 2010

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Take a look at this document on ReadWriteWeb, which is one of the most popular technology blogs worldwide. Just scan it. Notice that bold block in the middle of it, advising Facebook users that they aren’t on Facebook?

Apparently, in this article about Facebook Connect (Facebook’s attempt to expand its influence around the entire web by letting users treat their Facebook login as a universal trusted identity with which they can log in to any site utilizing the service), the authors found themselves buried under an army of clueless users somehow mistaking their site for a way to log in to their Facebook accounts, because this page scored really high in Google News’s results for the search term “Facebook login.” This means that instead of going to Facebook.com and looking for a login link there, a gazillion people Googled the phrase, ended up at ReadWriteWeb, scrolled to the comments section, and mistook the link to log in with their Facebook credentials and comment for a link to actually log in to Facebook itself. Read the comments.

The relic of the entire situation is pretty funny: Read these comments from annoyed users who really just want to log into Facebook and are protesting that they can’t get to their friends lists. It’s a terrifying look into a darkly burning eye of inexperience I never want to see again. I see things like this happening, and suddenly I’m scared and disoriented. There’s a howling wind around me and a voice booms, “Where’s your god now?” It’s bad. This invalidates about fifteen years of work on my part, and leaves me wanting to throw up my hands, walk away from the web completely, and, I don’t know, get certified as a personal trainer or something else totally unrelated to the web.

I have never seen a group of users so utterly confused and confounded by the messages they’re being sold by various marketing teams around the web. Clearly, what’s going on here is that, barring a basic understanding of what a URL actually is (which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing), users are searching for Facebook and its functions on Google because they’ve heard somehow (probably via Google’s marketing) that Google is the best way to find things on the web. Then, they’re either misreading, misunderstanding, or ignoring the meaning of Google’s news results, and therefore deciding based upon the article’s popularity in the search, that this is the way to log in and play Farmville or whatever it is people do on Facebook when they spend hours there.

The spiraling levels of information being ignored to get to this point of activity is absolutely mind-boggling. To do this, a user has to ignore what Google actually says, ignore the giant red header which very clearly does not say Facebook, then enter upon this site—again, very clearly not Facebook—your login credentials. It is absolutely no wonder identity theft is such a problem.

Friends and readers, I deleted my Facebook account this past week because of this exact type of web user. I just can’t handle being around them. I’m not sure who’s more at fault: me for being a complete geekasaurus, or them for being utter noobs—or if anyone’s at fault at all. Maybe it’s just two completely different web cultures sprouting around us. Maybe what I’m seeing is the beginnings of a stratification of the web into types based upon experience as a currency.

There’s a whole host of issues creating this car crash.

First off, I think Facebook has created for itself a huge branding issue, in that it has never clearly explained, in an obvious place, what Facebook Connect actually is. It’s difficult to understand, for most users, that the web has moved beyond the concept of discrete sites into a phase where it is comprised of services that can interlock and intermingle. Facebook Connect is branded so identically to Facebook that it is, in several peoples’ minds, no different from the site, and therefore creates situations where Facebook somehow exists on other sites.

Secondly, I think the entire web is currently so generically designed, lacking color and typographic differentiation, that it’s really just hard to see where you are at any given moment. With some time (hopefully not much more), we’ll have an easier time differentiating properties with individualistic typography via embedded OpenType faces.

Thirdly, I think we’re seeing an influx of new users to the web not unlike what happened on Usenet in 1993 when AOL opened its doors to let AOL users participate in Usenet discussions without really telling them they were actually leaving the friendly confines to talk with an older, more experienced, geekier web. (Here’s a brief summary of the event; scroll down to “Usenet Newsgroups.”) The inexperienced users were routinely made fun of, shunned, and downright excluded. That was the beginning of AOL’s current state as reviled ghetto for grandmas and grandpas who could barely log on, but were eager to prove their worth by participating in the wild “new” frontier.

There’s another layer of interest to this, and that’s the reaction you’re reading now. This gaffe at ReadWriteWeb happened on February 11th, and I’m writing this on the 12th. I am most definitely not the first—a search through Google for “Facebook login” now yields easily 20 articles pointing to this one incident, which means that this entire episode is a wake-up call to more designers and developers than just me. Hopefully it’ll be enough of a scare to result in some decent research to make the web easier to comprehend.