Does Facebook's Early Release Model Scale?

While it has advantages, Facebook's early release model could be causing the company more trouble than doing good.

Iterative LoopOn Sunday evening Facebook rolled out the new Facebook profiles, but as many people have noticed, there are clearly some remaining bugs primarily surrounding navigating friends lists and mutual friends. However as Facebook surges toward 600 million users, one has to wonder if Facebook’s model of pushing out incomplete products makes sense.

Facebook doesn’t stand alone in their strategy of getting products out as early as possible. Google has been rolling out a lot of early products including Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google Hot Pot, and many others. However most people that have viewed Hot Pot and many of the other products walk away disappointed. While they still may use Google to search for things, they damage their reputation when it comes to their ability to launch “hot products”. Most recently Facebook has been rolling out a lot of unfinished products including Questions, Groups, Deals, Messages, and the new profile.

Historically, Facebook has proven that this model can work. By paying close attention to the metrics, Facebook pushes out changes that they thing will increase engagement and increase the number of new users that they are acquiring on any given day. However one area where Facebook continues to struggle, which Mark Zuckerberg has also rightfully identified as “the biggest problem in social networking”, is that people have segmented groups of friends but no easy way to filter them.

The proposed solution was Facebook Groups. Groups has had mixed results though. Depending on who you ask, they either love groups, as they’re a member of some extremely active ones, or they’re indifferent as they aren’t a member of any or are a member of a bunch of inactive ones. Then on Sunday Facebook pushed out the new profile, and with it, a new friend lists feature which includes the ability to share lists. It doesn’t appear to work very well though and based on my own experience (and many others that have been posting feedback) it’s not very intuitive.

If friend lists and organizing groups of friends is truly “the biggest problem in social networking”, why would Facebook release something which only created more confusion around this critical area? The only thing I can conclude is that this was a result of the launch early and fix bugs model that the company is known for. The friends list component, however, should not be a “bug” as it’s one of the most important features of the site, despite users not taking advantage of the feature. Personally, I think groups are incredible, however when the company launched the new friend lists, managing friends just became way too complicated.

Coming up with an elegant solution is definitely challenging, and it’s one that Facebook is struggling with. Google believes that they have their own solution that will work as well, however the key test will be who can develop the most effective representation of individuals’ actual social groups. In the meantime, we’ll have to wonder if pushing out early products is really the best way to get users to efficiently categorize their social relationships. Do you think Facebook’s early release model is beneficial or do you think it could eventually damage the company?