In recent weeks, there have been a number of incidents where high profile online services have gotten into something of a battle with their users. Be it the on again off again user interface debate between Facebook and its user base, or Twitter's deciding just what is the right way or the wrong way to use their service, both products have ended up telling their own customers that they know best, and you should just suck it up. During these debates, some have said the best way to drive a product forward was to never compromise and listen to your users, while others celebrated the users getting a voice at the table.
But we're missing a major issue that I want to address. I'm fine with companies making changes to their interface, or adding features, or even deciding to prioritize some issues over others. That's business. But don't tell me how to use your products. Don't tell me what is the right way or the wrong way to use a product, when you've given us tools.
Take for example the hubris from Biz Stone at Twitter in his note to individual customers who were relying on their providing autofollow capabilities. Most specifically, he said:
"We’re going to discontinue autofollow because this behavior sends the wrong message. Namely, it is unlikely that anyone can actually read tweets from thousands of accounts which makes this activity disingenuous."Oh really? What a bunch of junk this is. What's next? Google Reader telling us that there should be a limit to the number of RSS feeds we subscribe to, or that Yahoo!, Hotmail and GMail will limit the number of new e-mails we can receive in a day? After all, couldn't they write that "nobody can actually read e-mails from thousands of people which makes this activity disingenuous"?
Here's the reality - people are going to use products the way they want to, especially if you build a product that is flexible. And they will often use them in ways you never expected, or had even considered when you were first designing. And as you continue to build your service out, the solution is not to tell users there is "one right way", but instead to consider how you can make your product even better to an increasing number of people.
What I have seen from companies like Twitter and Facebook is a belief that you should only be connected to people you know in real life, and that you should only have a small number of people to be connected with. Yes, Facebook's dismissing the 5,000 limit, and yes, they're opening up to companies and fan pages, but they still require you to enter your true first and last name, and demand a synchronous follow.
Twitter's limits are even worse. What's so bizarre about this most recent volley about users being "disingenuous" by using auto-follow is how it impacts their most popular users. Where's the outrage that Barack Obama clearly uses auto-following software? Do you think Twitter is going to tell Obama that he can't actually follow 586,000 users? Do you think they are going to tell Robert Scoble that it is "disingenuous" to follow 85,000 people?
I also use a third party auto-following service from SocialToo (where I'm also an advisor). I use it because Twitter, thanks to other limitations in their product, will let me send direct messages only to those who follow me, and I want to let them contact me directly.
What Twitter and Facebook are doing by trying to tell their users that they know the right way to use their products is putting themselves above the users, and acting in an authoritative, but naive, manner. I think Biz' comment that it was "disingenuous" to follow thousands of accounts is covering the fact that Twitter's infrastructure wasn't meant to support such activity.
At risk of echoing Thomas Hawk's comment that I'm "Mr. FriendFeed", it's worth noting again that FriendFeed doesn't tell me how to or how not to use their products, and they aren't setting limits. They put out a service, and let the users have at it. That's impressive, and a major reason of why I'm bullish on what they do. For the rest of you developers who keep setting limits and claiming it's not your fault, but your users, you're wrong.