“Like.” “Add friend.” “Follow.” Those are the things that one does on Facebook. Hear one of those phrases in completely different context, and it’s still likely that the image of social media will pop into your head. Those words have become synonymous with Facebook in the public consciousness in a way that few common words ever become associated with one single product. And a few years from now, Facebook may have none of those features.
It sounds hard to believe. What would Facebook even look like without likes and adding friends? However, changing trends in technology and the way that it integrates with social media may very well be making Facebook’s current format for interacting with people and businesses obsolete, and we are all likely to be better for it.
A Future Without Friends?
The vision of a friendless Facebook described above may have you straining your brain to conceive of a version of the site that is completely unrecognizable from the one you use today. However, things won’t be as different as that prediction seems to imply at first glance. Years from now, Facebook will still have the same function it does today: to connect users with family, friends, and businesses online. The only thing that will change is the mechanisms that Facebook uses to do that.
As it is now, Facebook feeds are populated when users choose to follow people and businesses, and then like and share their posts. Facebook monitors those activities, and then customizes the results on their timelines (and the ads they see) accordingly.
Thanks to advances in technology, this method of tracking user activity is becoming clunky and obsolete. In an age where people use smartphones and social media for everything from messaging friends to posting about the restaurants and stores they visit, users are providing a wealth of data that much more accurately describes their social activities and interests than the accounts they choose to like or follow. By using that data to determine what should display on a user’s timeline instead of relying on that person to manually select whom they want to follow, Facebook will be able to provide them with a feed that is more relevant to them.
What will this look like? Let’s say your friend comes to town to visit. You text her, asking if she wants to meet up for drinks at a local restaurant, and she texts back saying “yes.” When you arrive, you both use FourSquare or another app to “check in” to the restaurant. After the night’s over, you each send a couple more texts to the other: “Had a great time, you?” “Totally! We should do it again!”
Analyzing that info, Facebook will make the determination that you two are friends, and that you are both interested in sharing certain types of information with each other. Facebook will then use that information to populate your feed with info relevant to that interaction. If the two of you stay friends and keep communicating with each other, you’ll stay connected on each other’s timelines. If you grow apart and stop communicating, eventually you’ll both fall off the other’s page.
Extrapolate this out to all your friends, family, and contacts, and you’ll get a vision of what the future of Facebook will look like. Keep checking into that restaurant on FourSquare and telling your friends about it, and you’ll get their special offers posted to your wall automatically. Have a bad experience with the staff or a case of food poisoning and swear never to go there again, and they’ll disappear from your feed when you complain about and stop recommending them. See more of your new significant other online, the more you text; but let their presence fade from your Facebook after things don’t work out and you swear never to talk to them again.
Changes Everyone Can Like
Change always looks a little scary and awkward, but these future changes to Facebook will mean a better experience for users. By integrating the personal data that users generate going through their daily lives, users will find that social media is both less awkward to use and provides them with more relevant information. Even changes that seem small at first will do wonders to make Facebook a more pleasant place.
How so? Let’s look at one example. Thanks to social media, the last decade has given rise to a new kind of faux pas and source of embarrassment: unfriending. Who hasn’t kept someone they never want to talk to again on their friends list just to avoid being the one to take the step of unfriending the other, or quietly tried to stop following a coworker who spams their feed with political vitriol only for it to blow up into a huge pile of drama? After the new friendless Facebook arrives, these situations can be avoided entirely. The people you talk to will stay, and the ones you want to ignore will fade from your feed.
The positive changes will go beyond just avoiding embarrassing social situations. For regular users, the process of building a feed that is relevant to them will become less cumbersome and largely done automatically. Why search out and individually add acquaintances and interest pages when you can have Facebook bring them to you just through the process of posting?
Businesses will have reason to celebrate these changes as well. As it is now, many businesses spend far too much time trying to find strategies and tricks that will get them exposed on social media. Once these changes take place, they can spend much less time working on optimizing on Facebook and much more time focusing on providing their services. Businesses will get to focus their energy on what they do best, and the love their customers show them in return will do their social media heavy lifting for them.
The thought of a Facebook without “friend” buttons and “like” notifications may seem strange now, but in a few years they will have outlived their usefulness. Once they’re gone, users will wonder how they ever got by with them for so long.