Why is Facebook so uncool? And does it matter?

Let me just get this out of the way: I love Facebook.

I say that without a hint of irony or embarrassment. I’m not the least bit surprised, however, that my adoration is not shared by most. In a poll released by CNBC today, the rest of the country has developed more of love-hate relationship with Facebook. They can’t stop using it, but:

“Facebook users have consistently cast a wary and suspicious eye on the platform: 59 percent of respondents said that they had little to no trust in Facebook to keep their information private. Yet despite those ongoing concerns, the number of users (and their engagement) continues to increase.”

In that regard, the rest of the country is catching up with Silicon Valley, where it has long been deeply uncool to admit that you like, or love, Facebook. The valley is a place where people love to love their digital services and gadgets. People love Apple! They used to love Google, back when it first came on the scene.

But not so with Facebook. People acknowledge its power and success. They admire its growth and impact. And they salute the journey of founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has built it into a colossus and defied all expectations about his ability to lead.

But love? No. You just don’t hear people sitting around gushing about how much they love Facebook in the way, say, you might hear them waxing poetically about the joys of Instagram. And which is why, in part, when Facebook said it was buying Instagram there was a bit of backlash.

I’ll confess: I’m not sure exactly why this is. Facebook has at times rankled people as it pushed them toward more sharing, and people have genuinely been queasy at times with the push toward oversharing. The user revolts are a well-known part of Facebook’s history. While I think most of these controversies are overblown, I understand the uneasiness.

If you do hear people raving about Facebook, it’s most likely an activist in another country who credits the platform with helping push forward a cause or movement. Maybe some cheering will come from marketers and businesses who have built a great community and following there.

But for the most part, such sentiments are rarely expressed here. Instead, it’s fashionable to deride Facebook as a “time suck.” Or a narcissistic wasteland. Maybe you think Facebook interactions are shallow. In any case, more people are spending more time there, and they seem unable or too embarrassed to admit that it might be because they’re actually enjoying themselves. Instead, they almost discuss their relationship to Facebook as if they are victims, who are only doing it because, well, everyone is doing it. Or perhaps they try to justify it by blaming Facebook for making itself addictive.

Me? I appreciate the way in which Facebook has allowed me to connect with old friends, and find new ones. I take pleasure in the small moments of discovery and delight that it brings me throughout the day. At other times, I appreciate the conversations I have with other “friends,” both my real-life ones and the virtual ones.

I get a small thrill when I share photos of my family that are particularly meaningful and people respond with comments and “likes.” No, it doesn’t replace the real-life connections. But these small connections still resonate and have meaning. And while I have found plenty to criticize over the years about the company’s strategy, or various changes it makes to the platform, it doesn’t change the fact that as a user, I’m happy to admit that Facebook makes me happy, even if that puts me in a minority of uncool users.

As we count down to the Facebook IPO later this week, the question is: Does this matter to Facebook? On one hand, that love and passion continues to drive Apple’s growth. On the other hand, Google has lost a lot of that early love and its business certainly hasn’t seemed to suffer.

I talked over this notion with Thomas Ordahl, senior director of strategy with Landor Associates. Part of Facebook’s challenge, Ordahl said, is that is that the message of its brand is unclear.

“The things we like about Facebook are the things that our friends do,” Ordahl said. “It’s kind of an empty vessel that we fill with things. Does Facebook really have a brand? It’s more like infrastructure.”

In that sense, in the minds of many folks, Facebook is more like a utility providing infrastructure. When every thing works, you don’t think about the imporance of the utility. But when it goes wrong, it gets all the criticism.

“It’s lke PG&E,” Ordahl said. “You only think of them when things go bad, when the power goes out.” Or, in the case of Facebook, when a privacy issue comes up, or the company changes the site’s design or features.

Still, advertisers probably won’t care about Facebook’s brand perception, Ordahl said.

“I think if they’ve got poeple then they’ve got data on people,” Ordahl said. “If they can help you target who you’re going after, it’s not going to matter to advertisers.”

Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group and author of “The End of Business as Usual,” noted that Facebook needs to continue to improve its overall experience so that users will continue to increase the amount of things they share, and the overall amount they engage with its platform. That means making the items users encounter more relevant and more compelling. Even if folks aren’t willing to admit to themselves they are deriving any pleasure from Facebook, the experience still needs to be rewarding on some level.

But at the same time, Solis agreed that Facebook at this point might be too big, too important for its perceived hipness, or lack thereof, to make much difference. The platform is so interwoven into every aspect of our lives, it’s not an option to walk away.

“Whether or not it’s cool, it just is,” he said. “Facebook is just a part of life now. Facebook is part of how you communicate and express yourself. It’s always there in the background, so more people will just be indifferent to it. You might go away now and then, but it will always be there.”

 

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