Damned if You Change, Damned if You Don’t

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    Illustration by Matt Boblet.

    The last time democracy really worked on a large scale in America was in 1985. A huge change was enacted by higher powers that altered the daily routine for millions of citizens, and many were outraged and unsatisfied with the change. Refusing to take this lying down, they made their voices heard, and the error in judgment was quickly reversed.

    And just like that, as quickly as it had gone, Coca-Cola Classic was back on the market.

    We’ve all heard of “voting with our dollars” — the idea that we can change the practices of corporations by choosing to buy — or more often, not buy — a certain product. This is exactly what happened to Coca Cola in 1985. The company introduced “New Coke,” a supposedly more full-bodied version of the iconic soft drink, and although sales spiked for a bit due to consumer curiosity, they eventually plummeted. There are different reasons given for the failure of New Coke, but the basic hypothesis is that Coke is somehow tied to people’s identity as Americans (especially those living in the South, where Coke was created and first flourished), and people didn’t like the idea of changing a part of their cultural heritage for no good reason. The move was seen as an act of tone-deaf corporate flailing, and the market rejoiced when Coke’s original formula was again made available, mere months after its cancellation.

    And now it’s 2011, and two more American brands are under fire for changing their products. One of the companies, Facebook, is in a state of almost constant controversy, from privacy concerns, to scrutiny of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to users’ dissatisfaction with the online chat feature. The latest surge of negative publicity comes from a feature all users see on the side of their screen — a window called a “ticker” that tracks every move of every friend in real time. It’s basically a newsfeed on steroids. The main complaint against it criticizes its hyper-voyeuristic nature, and the fact that friends of friends have too much access to information. More intense changes — such as the Timeline, a sort of autobiography of one’s life, becoming the new standard profile page — are still in beta, but one can only imagine how many complaints will be launched against Facebook after these changes take effect.

    Another company under fire right now is Netflix. The online movie rental company recently raised its subscription rates significantly and announced its division into two sites — Netflix will remain for streaming video only, and a new site called Qwikster is exclusively for DVD deliveries.

    Users are upset about changes to these products — earlier this summer, Facebook lost about 6 million users in the United States, and it’s estimated when all is said and done, Netflix will lose as many as 2.5 million subscribers. Why, then, are the companies forging ahead with changes that upset the very people who bring in money? If consumers are commodities, why aren’t their opinions being taken more into account? If these changes are our generation’s New Coke, why aren’t Facebook and Netflix paying attention to their customers? As “Ad Age’s” recent article’s title asks, “Seriously, Netflix, Facebook — Did You Forget About Your Consumer?”

    It’s worth noting both Facebook and Netflix exist solely as online products — nobody goes to the store to buy some social media, and the whole point of Netflix is you needn’t leave your house to watch movies or TV shows. And — this might be the understatement of the year — the Internet changes everything.

    One of the largest impacts the Internet has had is it has made it more and more difficult to truly impress anybody. We’ve become a “been there, seen that” culture, where it’s possible to intimately know any experience by pushing a few buttons. As a result, nothing is serious, nothing is dire, nothing matters. Because of this, a website cannot stay the same, because users will inevitably lose interest and move onto something else. This has always been the case with products to some degree — capitalism and advertising are built around the idea of selling people things they don’t need, but the Internet’s ability to provide instant gratification makes newness more necessary than ever before. And to keep up, Facebook and Netflix are anticipating users’ malaise before it happens.

    There’s a chance a person might be a lifelong drinker of Coca-Cola Classic over Pepsi, but nobody’s going to stick with Facebook when all their friends move over to Google+ (remember what happened to MySpace?), which is why Facebook is rabidly trying to prevent that by making changes nobody wants (or at least, nobody wants yet). And it’s only a matter of time before something — Hulu? Redbox? — catches up to Netflix, so they’re milking the customers they have for all the money they’re worth, while they can. On the Internet, almost everything has a shelf life.

    Interestingly enough, these two online Goliaths — always on the lookout for their virtual Davids — have joined forces. Users outside of the United States can now stream Netflix on Facebook and see what their friends are watching. Maybe you don’t want that to happen, but if online culture tells us anything, it’s that sometimes unlikeable is still better than stagnant.