3 Mar 2011 3 pm eastern

Like and Friend are broken in Facebook.

I CANNOT LIKE Happy Cog’s new Facebook page, due to Facebook’s unexplained and arbitrary limitation on how many things a user is allowed to Like. In Facebook’s world, it seems I Like too many things, and that’s bad—even though a chief value of Facebook to advertisers is as a platform where users connect to brands by “Liking” them and encouraging their friends to Like them. Breaking the user/Like connection arbitrarily not only frustrates the user, it also runs counter to Facebook’s business model. Moreover, the vaguely worded error message is a lie. No matter how many things I remove from my pile of Likes, I still cannot Like anything new.

So the real problem may be that I have too many “friends” (i.e. colleagues, business contacts, actual friends, and family). I’m allowed 5000 and I have 5000. If you have 5000 friends, you can’t add more friends, because God forbid you help Facebook grow its network beyond an arbitrary cutoff point. Moreover, if you have 5000 friends, you apparently aren’t allowed to Like anything. You have to choose: friends or brands. Like anyone, I choose friends. As a result, I lose value to Facebook’s advertisers, whose products I can no longer Like. This inability to simultaneously Like people and things maps to nothing in the real world and makes no business sense, but here we are.

So Happy Cog has a Facebook page, and I founded Happy Cog, but I cannot like Happy Cog’s Facebook page. Even if I remove everything else I Like from my list of Facebook likes, I will still not be able to Like Happy Cog’s Facebook page, unless I start removing contacts, which I’m unwilling to do for obvious reasons.

If Facebook were an eager young startup, they would quickly fix this problem, which runs counter to all their business interests and is not based on any real system constraints. But, as we all know, Facebook is an insanely successful company, so they have no incentive to fix the things that are broken in their user experience.

I like Facebook. I don’t mind the brain-dead broken parts of Facebook; all web apps have broken, brain-dead parts. That’s what testing and user feedback are for: to find fix broken, brain-dead stuff. I hate, hate, hate thinking Facebook will never fix what is broken and brain-dead in its site used by half a billion people. Say “Amen,” somebody.

Filed under: Design, experience, facebook, software, Standards, State of the Web, The Essentials, Unconscious, Usability, User Experience, UX

36 Responses to “Like and Friend are broken in Facebook.”

  1. Tom Carmony said on

    I recall Gary Vaynerchuk running into this problem of a “friends cap” a couple of years ago, but with Facebook’s growth, I’m really surprised that it’s still in place/an issue. For the typical user it’s a non-issue, but if Facebook truly wants to be the sort of de facto platform for social interaction that they seem to strive to be, they really should open things up for members with larger audiences.

  2. Derek Pennycuff said on

    I saw your Flickr screen shot last night and updated Facebook with “Facebook caps you at 5,000 friends.” Some of my geek friends interpreted it as more “bust a cap” than “arbitrary restriction”. Maybe they’re on to something. Watch out for Facebook assassins.

  3. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Arbitrary limits exist because an engineer has to insert a value when coding. That makes sense. And it makes sense that inevitably a user would bump up against an insufficient limit because of an unanticipated use case, i.e. Facebook becoming so popular that people with existing online and real-world followings use it as a marketing channel. But once that use case reveals itself, a hungry company fixes the problem. If Gary Vaynerchuk complained about the “5000 friends” limit two years ago, and I complained about it six months ago, and the limit is still in place, then the company is too big to be care, which is to say, too big to be good—and the experience we love, which drew us to the app in the first place, will decline until Facebook is like America On-Line: something that was big on the internet once, and then swept aside by the next wave.

  4. Geoff Barnes said on

    AMEN.

    Hilariously, I tried only to say “AMEN” in my comment, but was told my comment was a bit too short. I was told to go back and make it longer, so I did.

    So, AMEN².

  5. Zachary Nicoll said on

    Ah, well I tried the same thing as Mr. Barnes there, and it seems we tried to post the comment at the same time. He won.

    So, again, Amen.

  6. nigedo said on

    Meh. Facebook showed us a better way to do social networking than IRC, newsgroups and forums. Someone else will come along and do it better still and shaft Facebook. This is the way of the world.

  7. Garrett Dimon said on

    I agree that the number is clearly arbitrary. However, I disagree that limits are a bad idea in practice. While I don’t presume to know Facebook’s logic for the limit, I do think that having a limit can be a good thing. I might even argue that the limit is too high. (See Dunbar’s number on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number)

    With a limit in place, people are forced to use discretion and their choices become more significant, and possibly meaningful. As it is now, Facebook feels like it’s encouraged too many shallow “relationships”. Or, more succinctly, if everyone and everything is important, then nothing is.

    This viewpoint depends on entirely on what each individual thinks Facebook should be, but I think it’s something worth considering.

  8. Dave said on

    lol…hilarious stuff man!

  9. Mike D. said on

    Users are, of course, allowed to use Facebook in any manner they choose, but might I humbly suggest that if you are maintaining 5000 “friends” on Facebook, then you are not really using the service as it was meant to be used. Maybe you really do have 5000 friends, but I would say that 99.9% of the world doesn’t.

    Twitter, unlike Facebook, uses asymmetric relationships so you can a) follow any numbers of people you want, and b) be followed by any number of people who want to follow you, without any regard for your “relationship status”, but Facebook is not really designed to be used this way.

    I agree with you that the 5000 person limit was probably set by an engineer at some point in time, but I’m sure when this was questioned by others in the company, the answer was “well, no one has 5000 friends anyway”.

    My personal rule for what constitutes a “Facebook friend” is a) you are someone I’ve met in real life, and b) if you were in town one night and called me wanting to have a beer, I’d gladly have one with you.

  10. Clayburn said on

    Well, you’re doing Facebook wrong. You shouldn’t be complaining. Nobody has 5,000 friends. Not possible. You need to have discretion in who you add.

    In your case, what you want is a Facebook Page, as a public figure. Facebook is a social network. Unless you regularly play Bridge or go out drinking with all 5,000 of those “friends”, then they have no business being connected to you.

    Make sense?

  11. Clayburn said on

    ^That was me, by the way. Your commenting system sucks.

  12. Alex Knight said on

    Excellent points Jeffrey. I agree the 5000 limit can and should be lifted. That being said, a fan page is far better suited to what you want to do. As far as I know there isn’t a 5000 “likes” limit on pages. Personally, I would never use a normal Facebook account and add people as a “friend” that I don’t personally know. That’s just my $0.02 though.

  13. Robin2go said on

    Well, you’re doing Facebook wrong.”

    Wow. Really? Personally, I think the beautiful thing about social media and community engagement is how organic the movement is. It is the great equalizer, and allows us to connect to people in as many new ways as people can imagine to use it. My way is not @zeldman’s way nor is it, quite probably, your way. And the beauty of this truth is that, if I don’t like the way you “do” social media, I have the freedom to unfollow/ignore/move along and not have you mucking up my chi. So if you play nice with others and I run with scissors, we can both do our thing without offending the other.

    Community. Choice. Identity. Freedom. These are beautiful things.

  14. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    My personal rule for what constitutes a “Facebook friend” is a) you are someone I’ve met in real life, and b) if you were in town one night and called me wanting to have a beer, I’d gladly have one with you.

    That’s fine for you, but web apps are like Schrödinger’s cat. How users use an app determines what it becomes. Twitter didn’t ignore the hash tag or the @ sign, it made use of its users’ innovations. Web apps (like web content sites) are always changing in response to their users’ changing needs. If they aren’t changing, they are dying.

    To say that I should use Facebook the way you do is like saying I should build a house like yours. To say that Gary Vaynerchuk or I are misusing Facebook because we use it differently than you goes against everything web design and user experience are about. As an innovative web guy, I’m surprised you don’t know that.

    For you, Facebook is a way to connect with people you’d want to have beer with. That’s fine.

    For me it’s a way to connect with close friends and family, but it’s also a way to connect with people who’ve bought my books, seen me at a conference, people whose books I’ve bought, people I’ve seen speak, former clients of Happy Cog, potential clients of Happy Cog, potential ALA authors, school friends, business acquaintances, people who want to attend An Event Apart but live far away and can’t attend this year, people who’ve attended An Event Apart and have questions about an upcoming show, customers of A Book Apart, etc. etc.

    I’m actively engaged in running multiple businesses and I’m actively engaged in the web design, interaction design, and user experience communities. People in these communities use Facebook, so I use Facebook. I’m not doing it wrong, I’m just doing it differently from you.

    And so are enough other people that Facebook should examine this use case and fix this problem.

  15. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    a fan page is far better suited to what you want to do.

    Fan pages strike me as arrogant. James Ellroy has friends, not fans. Tom Waits has friends, not fans. If anyone deserves fan pages, they do. I don’t. I’m just part of this community.

    I agree, though, with the facts you’re stating. Fan pages have no limits. But I don’t want to have “fans.”

    And I don’t want to reach out to a potential customer and say, “Hey, how about becoming my fan?”

    If I’m dating someone, I don’t want to suggest she become my “fan” on Facebook.

    If someone who has read Designing With Web Standards wants to feel closer to me as an author, I consider that person a kind of friend—not a fan.

    Maybe I’m wrong.

    Then let me ask another question:

    How does one migrate one’s friends to a fan page? I can’t see a mechanism for doing so.

    If there is such a mechanism, how would my brother feel to wake up one morning and find himself listed as my “fan?” How would my business partners feel? What about a friendly ex-girlfriend?

    Even if there were a way to seamlessly transition all “friends” to “fans,” there would be social hell to pay for doing so, don’t you think? “Fan” is the wrong thing. “Contact” my be closer to the truth for some of my 5000 “friends,” but Facebook doesn’t have “contacts.” And “friend” is warmer and nicer than “fan.”

    Just my two cents.

  16. Mike D. said on

    I specifically didn’t say you should use Facebook the way I do. I just said that you are using it in a manner for which it was not intended. What percentage of Facebook users do you think are running into this 5000 friend problem? .0001%? If .0001% of customers who walked into a vegan restaurant asked for a plate of haggis, does that mean the restaurant should start serving haggis? Clearly no, even if this .0001% represented some very powerful and well-known people.

    As others have said above, what I think you want is a Zeldman “Page”, which is tantamount to a Daily Show Page or a Taylor Swift Page. Pages are specifically designed for the sort of interaction you’re talking about. They are designed for famous people, brands, and products. I forgot who said this, but the definition of fame is when you have more people who want to communicate with you than you can communicate back with (or something like that, phrased a little better). You are clearly in that group.

  17. Mike D. said on

    I was publishing my comment above as you were typing the one directly above it. It at least used to be possible to convert regular accounts to Pages as we’ve done it plenty of times at MSNBC/Newsvine. Had to talk to someone at Facebook to get it done though.

    I hear you on the “fan” vs. “friend” thing, but I would also hold that, most of those 5000 people are indeed fans and not friends, whether they like it or not :). Also, I haven’t checked extensively for this, but I think Facebook doesn’t really use the “fan” terminology very often… it’s all just “Like”. So when I go to a Page that I have “become a fan of” (as we are referencing it), Facebook doesn’t actually refer to me as a Fan. It just says “You Like [Zeldman]“, which I do.

  18. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Well argued, Mike. Well argued. :)

  19. Shane Guymon said on

    AMEN!!!!

    But now I’m pissed because that was all I wanted to write, but your website wouldn’t let me. It informed me that my message was “too short.” So now I have to make up other crap in this comment so I can get this thing “approved.”

  20. Stephen Van Tuyl said on

    I will most likely never find myself in your predicament but I did encounter the problem you speak of when I tried, albeit naively, to send you a friend request. I was informed you already had the maximum amount of friends allowable on FB. Didn’t know about the rest of it. They really should fix it!

  21. Clayburn said on

    You’re not longer “becoming a fan” of Zeldman. They would be liking you. Friends like you, right?

    Dates, you would add as a friend, presumably. I’m just saying that most of the 5,000 would be more suited to fit into a category of people who like you, which means you’ll want them as a fan.

    Face it, you’re a public figure, you advertise your Facebook profile on your website. I’m sure you get a lot of Friend Requests from “fans”. So, accepting them is against Facebook’s terms of service. It doesn’t matter how you feel it’s best to use Social Media to make it what you want it to be. Facebook has best practices and rules and guidelines. You’re not following them by having 5,000 friends. Friends should be people you know personally.

  22. Jeff Spring said on

    AMEN. Let me represent the opinion of the fan. I read your stuff all the time, and I’ve attended an a list apart event where we had beers afterward and had a chance to chat a bit, so I sent you a friend request on facebook. I am inspired by your thinking regularly, and wanted to simply connect some of my friends to that same thinking. If they knew I read your material, it of course, says a little bit about where MY thinking is at.

    Facebook denied my request to “friend” you and told me that you already had 5000 friends and were clearly over the limit. I was miffed and I immediately thought, “there has to be a different mechanism for a guy like Zeldman to accept my request.” As a customer of your books and speaking engagements, I feel somewhat entitled. I admit it.

    What I’m saying is, create a fan page, whether you like the name or not. I believe whole heartedly what Mr Mike D says, “You are clearly in that group.”

    I can’t really believe this happened to me just the other day and now you are writing about it. So, please do it. If only so I’ll feel complete.

  23. Blanca Perse said on

    …ooOO ( I just love to see signs that a system is about to crash. #Ontology )

  24. Spencer said on

    Its funny that people think you are using Facebook’s friend function incorrectly. If those people were at all correct that we should limit ourselves to only really ‘personal’ connections then we’d be left with Path, which is an entirely different experience. Rarely do I encounter too many regular users on Facebook that cap themselves at around 50 friends. It doesn’t make sense; it’s not that type of network.

    On the other hand, I’m not so sure Facebook is interested in evolution and growth when we’re talking about catering to a small percentage of the userbase. Even though that may be a valuable preemptive design opportunity. Right now, they know they’re making billions, I don’t think they care about us small fish. Unless you can find a way to make your Facebook user type contagious (and not in the icky syphilis sort of way)…

  25. Gregory said on

    You might be on to something. I see your 5K cap and raise the inability to convert Groups to Pages or New Groups, semi-functioning “@” capability, rudimentary search, 100 fan cap for changing Page names, and inability to Share wall posts to Pages.

    In the race to add more and more features, existing features often seem to end up at a 90% finished state. You should see the Facebook support pages. Hundreds of complaints met with deafening silence.

    On the other hand, there are some features that have been rapidly and decisively deployed, such as HTTPS – although cynics may point out that the hacking done by the Tunisian regime may have forced their hand.

  26. Jim Renaud said on

    Mike Davidson is correct. Facebook wants you to set up a Page which allows you to do most of what you are complaining about in this post.

    Facebook has intentionally moved away from using the term Fans on the site and in marketing to describe Page followers in part because of the complaints you listed in the comments. Fans are now People Who Like Happy Cog.

    Also, the Pages have been recently updated to allow you to interact with other Pages and People and comment as the Page. I would say most of your 5,000 followers are people who like you or your business, not friends.

    Someone at Facebook may even be able to convert your profile to a page if you were interested (wink, wink).

  27. Henry said on

    Man, you have a lot of extensions.

  28. David Foltz said on

    Does it mean we are using the Internet the wrong just because 4 billion IP addresses are no longer enough? Surely IPv6’s 340 trillion trillion trillion seems as unattainable today as IPv4’s 4 billion once did. Don’t be afraid to think big, even if it makes you an edge case.

  29. Copper Fax said on

    This is a bit like that time Scoble was moaning that Quroa wasn’t what he thought it was / should be.

  30. Rv Sweatshirt | Cheap Sweatshirts said on

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  31. Jason said on

    Amen! Sir Zeldman, Amen!

  32. Dain said on

    I agree dude, all business, not just web business, grows only when you provide a service that your users need and want. Of course we know the trick is understanding those users. Most of the time, you can use the “majority rules” plan, but you should also know when it’s appropriate to make a change based on the minority as well.

    Mike D. is correct in his analogy of the vegan restaurant, but we also know FB is not a mom&pop and Jeffrey is not just any old dude walking in off the street. Neither is Gary.

    Mike (and others) are also right in pointing out that the “Fans” are now “Likes”, but if I were in FB’s shoes I would not discount Jeffrey’s concerns at all. For anyone who has used FB casually for a number of years the whole “Fans” thing is still fresh in their minds, most of us still refer to FB pages as “Fan Pages” and I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to make a “Page” for themselves. Sure, it might be expected for people in Hollywood, we except the fact that they can often lean towards overt narcissism.

    If a goat farmer gets a customer asking for cows, he can tell the guy to try somewhere else. But if the customer says “I really like how you treat your goats, and if you started farming cows I will buy 400 a year and tell everyone else I know to get their cows from you”, …well then maybe he should think about getting some cows.

    FB should see the underlying opportunities in this post. Perhaps ask themselves if it might be worth it to offer a specialized profile for the 5k+ croud? Maybe someone like Zeldman wouldn’t mind paying a small fee in order to be allowed to continue using the app the way he likes to use it?

  33. barry said on

    A ME N !

  34. Facebook limits you at 5000 friends « The Universe Divided said on

    [...] Jeffrey Zeldman claims 5000 friends is not enough! [...]

  35. Chris Lee said on

    Great post Jeffrey…you bring up some right on the money posts about Facebook. I give them 2 more years before being replaced by something better.

  36. marketing quotes said on

    Did not know facebook restricts the number of friends to 5000. I have a friend (one of my 201) that has 4994 – but this has not changed for a while, so perhaps this is why?
    Agree with Mike D – most people do not have such a wide friends network – maybe a couple of hundred (like myself – and that is acquaintances and friends of friends) but not 5K.

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