Enterprise social networks are often adopted to be “like Facebook for our company.” But there are a few Facebook characteristics you shouldn’t be so quick to imitate.

Here’s a phrase guaranteed to make me wince: “as easy as Facebook.”

At a time when every software vendor seems to be offering something that’s “like Facebook for the enterprise” or “like Facebook for project management” (or document management or business process management), I have to question just how much like Facebook we want these things to be. Like Facebook in terms of adoption and interaction? Sure. If you can find a way to make your company like Facebook in terms of market valuation … well, good luck with that, but surely a worthy goal. But if you are a social software developer or a CIO trying to turn your company into a social enterprise, I suggest you reconsider making your systems “as easy as Facebook.”

I say Facebook is not easy. Okay, okay, posting a status message is pretty easy. Finding old high school friends, pretty easy (remembering who all these people are is the part I have a problem with, but that’s a wetware issue not a software one). Facebook does a lot of things right, or it wouldn’t be where it is.

Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff made a big point of arguing that enterprise software should be more like Facebook around the time the company launched its Chatter social software last year. His argument attracted praise, as well as critiques and ridicule.

One area where Facebook seems to be making the right investments is in site engineering. A recent AlertNet Web performance survey shows Facebook as the fastest social network in terms of Web response time, as well as the most reliable. Prior reports from the same study show Facebook has consistently been the top performer, although it has played leapfrog on reliability with some others such as YouTube, LinkedIn, and even MySpace.

But Facebook also bewilders its users on a regular basis. It’s a joke how often Facebook makes basic changes in the user experience that cause some subset of users to organize protests and threaten to quit the service. Yet few make good on the threat, and the membership continues to swell. In most cases, the annoying features remain, or get replaced with new annoying features, and people learn to live with them.

As features proliferate, navigating through Facebook gets unavoidably more complex. Posting photos to an album is easy. Trying to rearrange your photos or move them between albums? Not so much. A friend who was struggling to figure out the user interface recently told me, “Facebook is about as easy to use as Notes.” Ouch. Of course, we were complaining about Facebook on Facebook, so we were still racking up ad impressions.

Facebook suffers from features getting buried within features. I’m thinking of the ability to send out a status message to some subset of your online friends–something I occasionally do when I want to share something with friends who share my political interests, but not my professional contacts or non-political friends. This is possible, if you go through the trouble of categorizing or tagging your Facebook friends, but then to send one of these messages, you have to do something like this:

– Click the lock icon on the status message form

– Select Custom

– Select Specific People

– Type in the name of the group (with a little auto-complete help)

This is one of the areas where Google+ may have a better approach, since the ability to target messages to a contact “circle” is much more prominent in the user interface. Google+ may turn out to have other flaws, but that’s one of the things I like about it.

Facebook Groups provide another way of connecting with a specific group of people. Instead of categorizing your Facebook contacts, you can add a bunch of them to a discussion group and send messages to that group. But the redesign of Facebook Groups introduced in October is one of the more annoying changes Facebook has made to its user interface. You can now be added to a group without your permission and find yourself bombarded with messages from group members. You can remove yourself from specific groups after the fact, but as far as I can tell Facebook has still not gotten around to letting you opt out of this feature in general, despite many protests. After all our experience with email spam, how did we get back to an opt-out model?

So one of the most basic things NOT to imitate about Facebook is its habit of introducing sudden and unexpected changes that violate user expectations for how an application should work. Incremental improvements should be the rule for your enterprise social network. There may be times when more abrupt changes are necessary–maybe the software has come to an architectural dead end, and you must vault into the future because you will never get there with baby steps. In that case, you ought to be able to do a better job of preparing users for the change and guiding them through the transition than Facebook typically does. Enterprise technology managers should know what’s coming in their social software vendor’s next release and try to implement big changes on their own schedule, and with adequate preparation.

Imitating the Facebook user interface for the sake of minimizing training, on the assumption that many of your employees already know how to use it–yes, that makes perfect sense. Just don’t copy features blindly, or fall in with vendors who are doing so. Make your corporate social network like Facebook, but not too much like Facebook.

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