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A new face for Facebook

May 21, 2008 |  7:28 pm

Profile pages on Facebook are about to get a face-lift. At an open house today, the Palo Alto company behind the social networking sensation gave a preview of changes designed to reclaim the site's uncluttered, spartan aesthetic. The changes will also give users more control over their profiles, allowing them to play up what's important and downplay what's not.

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergInstead of one page, profiles will be divided into four tabs: feed, info, photos and applications. The tabs, part of one of the most radical redesigns in Facebook's four-year history, were the brainchild of Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who founded the company.

The redesign has been in the works since January but stalled when software developers who build fun features for Facebook users objected. Facebook is trying to make its site less spammy without alienating those developers, whose applications keep users on the site longer.

"I think there was some apprehension, but I think developers understand that what's good for users is good for them," said Ben Ling, Facebook's director of platform product marketing.

Here's how it will work. The feed -- the primary page -- will feature ...

...  a continuous broadcast of a user's recent activities on Facebook, including new photos, friends and the like. Users can add photos, links or information about themselves to the feed and enlarge or shrink updates depending on their importance. Facebook is emphasizing the feed because broadcasting quick updates has become a "pervasive" trend on the Internet, as evidenced by the success of Twitter and FriendFeed, said Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president of product marketing.Screenshot of new Facebook design

The info tab will contain more static personal data such as contact information, education, career history and so forth. The photo tab will be a gallery of recent photos (the company says users upload 14 million photos a day for a total of 6 billion on the site). A fourth tab will be dedicated to applications that users install on their profile.

The idea is to make profiles cleaner and simpler, underscore recent and relevant information and give users more control over their profiles, Palihapitiya said. Developers will have many opportunities to engage with Facebook users, but only those who create truly engaging applications are likely to succeed. In the next few days, Facebook is going to allow developers to begin testing their apps and playing around with the new design.

Next month, Facebook will begin walking users through the process of switching over to the new profile format. That will be the tricky part.

Facebook says it's all about innovation, meaning change is going to be a part of the evolving experience as the company tries to find better ways to help users communicate and interact. But not everyone is the technical equivalent of an Obama groupie. Only time will tell if the new Facebook profile will have more fans or foes.

"Change is difficult for our users," said Mark Slee, the Facebook product manager in charge of the face-lift. "Even positive changes."

Zuckerberg has had to wrestle with two large-scale user rebellions since he started the site while an undergraduate at Harvard University. In 2006, users objected to the "news feed," which broadcast information about their activities to their friends. Facebook quelled the dissent by giving users more control over how the information was shared. Last year, Facebook drew unwanted attention for an advertising gimmick called Beacon that broadcast recent purchases and activity elsewhere on the Web to their friends. Facebook eventually relented and allowed users to turn off Beacon.

Facebook, which is one of Silicon Valley's hottest companies, with an eye-popping $15-billion valuation, is still working on a tough balancing act: pleasing its 70 million users while producing ad revenue from their presence.

That may require a more radical approach than a face-lift. Research firm EMarketer last week lowered its forecasts for worldwide ad spending on social networking sites by 2011, to $3.8 billion from $4.1 billion. It also lowered estimates for Facebook and rival MySpace.

-- Jessica Guynn

Photo: Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg. Credit: Craig Ruttle / Associated Press