What Facebook Did in 2014 to Get Users to Turn Against It

In 2014, Facebook acquired companies, launched apps, and broke records. It alienated users, sparked controversies, published ethically questionable research, and made algorithms more prominent a part of its network than ever before. It also became the brand that we complain most about online, and the social network with which we’re the least satisfied.

A study conducted by VentureBeat’s VB Insight analysts found that we complain about brands 879 million times per year on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Researchers polled more than 11,000 Internet users across the United States and found that 10% of users “find something to be angry about publicly every single day.” 17.4% of people complain to brands using social media every single week, and surprisingly, 32.8% of brands never reply to social media complaints. Another interesting finding of the study? The brand that we most often target with complaints is Facebook, the social networking giant for which 2014 was a year of milestones and controversy in equal parts.

While “traditional” brands that Americans love to hate — like Walmart, Verizon, Target, and Comcast — rank high on the list of companies that the study found consumers complain about, VentureBeat notes that Facebook’s name stands out against the rest. A full fifth, or 20% of the more than 1,000 people surveyed, reported that they had publicly complained about Facebook, most likely via the social network itself. However, the study says Facebook deals with it well, staying out of the list of brands that consumers say are the worst at dealing with complaints on social media. (Those eight brands, in order, are Comcast, Walmart, Verizon, Apple, Kraft, Microsoft, Delta, and Amazon.)

Despite Facebook’s achievements, 2014 was a year of dissatisfaction for its users

VentureBeat isn’t the only one to find that customers aren’t as happy with Facebook — and other social media services — as brands would like them to be. The American Customer Satisfaction Index recently posted its yearly benchmarks for the social media industry, illustrating less-than-ideal satisfaction for Facebook’s service. The data, which ranked “Internet social media” services from Pinterest to YouTube to Twitter to LinkedIn in addition to Facebook, saw Facebook earning a customer satisfaction score of 67 out of 100 in 2014. The score represents an 8.1% gain over the social network’s score of 62 in 2013.

But Facebook was behind all other social networks that the ACSI ranked with the exception of LinkedIn, which also scored a 67 in 2014. Those scores are not much lower than Twitter’s score of 69, but interestingly enough, the overall category of “Internet social media” services at large received a ranking of 71 — the same ranking earned by Google+. YouTube earned a score of 73 points, and Pinterest came in at the top of the leaderboard with a score of 76.

So why is Facebook one of the lowest-ranked social networks, and the brand that we complain about most often online?  Writing for the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey characterizes 2014 as “the year the world turned on Facebook.” By many counts, the social network had a good year: Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary in February and reached 1.35 billion monthly active users in October; acquired Oculus and WhatsApp; launched a series of its own apps, including Paper, Slingshot, Mentions, Messenger, and Rooms; rolled out an app to provide free basic Internet service to users in Zambia, Kenya, and Tanzania; and broke all-time records during the World Cup, when 350 million users posted about the games 3 billion times.

The tide turned against Facebook with a flood of controversy

Also in 2014, however, teenaged members began to desert Facebook for Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks and messaging apps. Facebook saw widespread backlash when it required users of its mobile apps to download the standalone Messenger app to message each other. Users complained vocally about otherwise minor changes that elucidated the reach of the algorithms that power the News Feed — algorithms that determine which posts, photos, news items, and videos show up each time a user logs in. The regular level of disgruntlement quickly rose into outrage with the publication of the results of the “News Feed experiment,” an A/B test that saw researchers manipulating the content of users’ News Feeds to prove the emotional contagion and psychological effect of Facebook posts.

Communities of users revolted when Facebook began enforcing its “real name policy,” insisting that users associate their legal name with their profile and angering many in the LGBT community, plus more with ethnic names that Facebook didn’t recognize as legitimate. The usual discourse over Facebook’s continual collection of user data for targeted advertising escalated as a number of popular anonymous apps — Secret, Whisper, Yik Yak, and others — eroded what Dewey terms the “distinctly Facebookian notion” that all of a user’s online activity should be tied to one real-life name. That conversation reached a boiling point with the introduction of Ello, an overtly anti-Facebook social network that laid out a trifecta of promises: On Ello, users can choose their own identities, they won’t be exposed to ads, and they won’t have their activity tracked and converted into data.

Facebook faced more challenges even in the last month of the year, when backlash over the “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” of Facebook’s automatic year-in-review feature made headlines, like Eric Meyer’s popular piece on Slate. The feature, intended by Facebook’s engineers to enable users to look back at the best moments of the year behind them in preparation for the new year ahead, failed to account for the many cases in which the most-liked posts and photos of the year gone by would hold painful, instead of happy, memories.

So how does the year in review look for Facebook itself — beyond the rosy pictures painted by the network’s trend-centric year-in-review video? The social network’s achievement of its most impressive milestones to date coincides with its involvement in more controversies and culture wars than ever. While Facebook is the most ubiquitous social network on the scene, it isn’t infallible and isn’t invulnerable. Many this year have realized that algorithms are inadequate moderators of human behavior, emotions, and identities. But Facebook itself hasn’t reached that realization.

Even as many Facebook deserters couldn’t articulate exactly why they were uncomfortable with the social network, Facebook itself is experimenting — on a small scale, anyway — with ways to respond to the changing climate it encounters as it tries to push forward in its ascent toward dominance. Even Facebook’s rollout of the Rooms app seemed to acknowledge that perhaps forcing all of a user’s online activity into one central identity mediated by algorithms oversimplifies the context of the exchanges and activities we engage in online.

As users express concern over Facebook’s intrusions into their privacy, its propensity for experimenting on users, or its emphasis on advertising, few stop to realize that all of these are part of the social network’s algorithmic mediation of their experiences and identities online. The final sentiment of Facebook’s own year-in-review video — “feeling connected” — seems an apt symbol of the disconnect that users sense between the social network’s overt mission to connect and the ability of its code to implement that vision. For all its victories in 2014, Facebook also suffered major blows as users lost trust and confidence in the company’s ability to keep its social network feeling human.

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