Site complexity: Facebook and Twitter

In Uncategorized on 2009-12-29 by Kyle Maxwell

I recall reading years ago an article on mathematical complexity that talked about two differents sorts, “chess complexity” and “go complexity”. The complexity of chess comes as a result of many rules: pieces with movement patterns, capture rules, exceptions to the rules, et cetera. But the complexity of go comes as a result of just a few simple rules with deep implications and unexpected interactions.

Programming philosophies in Microsoft Windows and Unix have loose parallels to this as well: in the Windows culture, programs tend towards the “suite” architecture, doing a lot of things and incorporating as many features as they can, whereas Unix software tends towards the “tool” architecture, small pieces loosely joined.

We see this now with Facebook and Twitter. The former has turned into a nightmare of settings, ever-changing design, and constant memes about how to get Facebook to stop moving or removing the things people like. Frequently, this comes with detailed instructions about how to find some obscure setting, whether to set your privacy to something more in line with most people’s expectations or turn your stream into something you can actually follow. When I post something, I find it less than obvious how to control who sees it, and finding what I want turns into an exercise in frustration. This, despite the fact that I’ve used computers for nearly 30 years and have participated in online communities for nearly that entire time. “Virtual suicide” has increasing appeal for me and, apparently, many others.

Twitter, by contrast, has frustrated folks with its slow approach to new features. In part, they take a while because they want to get it right and so they go through lots of iterations of testing and refinement. But Twitter also has taken the approach of not adding too much in the core site. They created an API so that outside developers could build it for them, riffing on the simplicity of the architecture.

I can’t say which sort of complexity is “right” or “wrong”, and that statement probably wouldn’t hold any meaning anyway. But Twitter keeps attracting me because it doesn’t overwhelm me: when I want something simple, it works simply, and when I want to explore and investigate, it has lots of hidden layers and unexpected phenomena to delight and confound. Meanwhile, Facebook originally helped me stay in touch with family and friends I don’t see very often. Now, though, the frustration of trying to wade through everything I don’t want to see and navigating a moving labyrinth pushes me away.


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