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Facebook Revamps Home Page, Invites Grammatical Anarchy

During this week, Facebook has been rolling out a new home page design to its users, and my turn came yesterday afternoon.

It was a discombobulating experience. Instead of the usual tidy arrangement of stacked, sortable boxes of content, the home page was dominated by a single column listing all the details of people on my friends list, from status updates to uploaded photos to comments on other people's profiles.

As Facebook employees have explained in various blog posts, the idea is to bring all of your friends' activities to your attention in real time.


The new design certainly does that, at the cost of making it harder to catch up on things you missed earlier in the day. The oldest item on my home page was posted only two hours ago.

But the part that may distress me the most--as a Facebook user and as a student of the written word--is the change to Facebook's status updates. The new home page abandons all of the traditional grammar and structure of these messages.

Facebook used to be strict about them, requiring each one to start with your name and the verb "is": "Rob is on Facebook instead of doing work." The to-be verb requirement bugged me and many others, leading to the inevitable Facebook protest group.

Then Facebook relented. Although it filled in "is" as the first word of an update after your name, you could delete that and replace it with anything else: "Rob should be doing work but is on Facebook instead." But it still seemed obvious that you had to write a sentence--or at least a headline, such as one colleague's summary of his home-improvement efforts as "Frank Ahrens 1, Drywall 0."

Also unchanged: the need to refer to oneself in the third person if one wanted to abide by the rules of English grammar. Example: "Rob should be doing work but is on Facebook instead; he's suuure he'll finish his column this evening."

Lately, however, Facebook has seen a different status-update hub, Twitter, rapidly grow in popularity. That site's updates have never carried any assumption of grammatical correctness. Their strict 140-character limit makes it difficult to write a complete sentence, and many Twitter users also dispense with complete words in favor of the condensed argot of instant messaging.

Now Facebook has apparently elected to copy Twitter's unstructured updates. The new updates box, titled "What's on your mind," doesn't offer any suggestion of what to write or how to phrase it.

I shot off an e-mail to Facebook's public-relations department with this somewhat facetious inquiry: "Are we no longer supposed to start status updates with a verb?" A few minutes later, spokeswoman Jaime Schopflin called back. "No," she said, "You don't have to anymore; you can write whatever you want."

I'm not so sure I will. I've been writing Facebook updates as sentences for a long time, and it seems right to stick with that tradition. I also see that many of my friends have continued to write name-verb-object updates.

But we all could be wrong (I should note that I'm not exactly unaccustomed to the looser style of Twitter updates myself). So I'll throw this one out to you all: What's the proper form for a Facebook status update these days? Vote in the poll below, then explain your stance in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 13, 2009; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , The Web  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Tax Prep Software Must Die
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Are they going to update the FB iPhone app to allow the same freeform status updates? Still stuck w/ Name + verb there.

Posted by: boutros23 | March 13, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Why do online poll always leave out the option to select: "I don't give a crap?" Who cares; Facebook is free. If they do stuff the majority don't like, their numbers will dwindle. So far, that ain't happening.. (And yes, I am aware of the ungrammatical stuff in this comment.. and I choose option C.. if it were available.)

Posted by: gerardmclean | March 13, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

I think I am going to hate this new layout.

Posted by: tundey | March 13, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I have questions:

1. How do I see less of certain friends on my feed? There used to be the option to see more/less of certain friends. Now, I see some are hidden (guessing those I wanted to see less of), but I don't know how to hide others.

2. How do I get to applications?

3. How do I adjust how much video, etc. I see? I hate seeing each & every video post or link my friends make.

If I don't get help, I'm getting off FB!

Posted by: Post43 | March 13, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

I have a Facebook app that automatically imports my Twitter updates as my profile status, so I've been ignoring the "is" (when it was there) and rules of referring to myself in the proper person for some time.

Posted by: pattiea1 | March 13, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I feel so ashamed. I don't have a Facebook account, don't have a My Space account, haven't figured out why I need Twitter, and depend on e-mail to do what I need in contacting friends/acquaintances/etc. And I probably don't make more than half a dozen cell phone calls a week.

Boy am I behind the times. Right?

Trouble is, I don't see why I need anything I'm not using.

Posted by: Dungarees | March 13, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

The. New. Facebook. Homepage. SUX :(

Posted by: sigmagrrl | March 13, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Those yes/no options for the status update thing aren't really accurate: you don't have to start your status updates "Rob Pegoraro is..." to be grammatical.

I do not intend to dispense with grammar, but I don't need to start every sentence with my name, which always felt artificial. If I wanted to say something like, "Is it wrong to want to buy this thing," I would have find a verb to insert after my name: Tony Breed wonders if it's wrong... blah blah blah.

I have yet to see the new homepage... it's rolling out slowly, user by user, apparently. No one yet has said "oh yay I love this."

Posted by: tonybreed | March 13, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Facebook? This is like bemoaning the lack of grammar on vanity license plates, or the quality of acting in porn. Get a life, FFS.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | March 14, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse


Right there with you. The only reason I am on Facebook is because many of my friends no longer send out pictures of their kids in e-mail or snail mail - they only post on Facebook.

My cell phone is emergency only, I don't Twitter, and I still am known to *gasp* put pen to paper and send out actual birthday cards and thank you notes. And I'm an Internet professional.

That being said, the new FB layout is horrendous. I'm not sure who they used for user testing, but this is a big step backwards in their usability.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | March 14, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse


From a lot of surfing around, here are my answers to your questions:

Q1. How do I see less of certain friends on my feed? There used to be the option to see more/less of certain friends. Now, I see some are hidden (guessing those I wanted to see less of), but I don't know how to hide others.

A1: There is no more "see more/less" option. There is only "see a friend or hide them". So in other words, it appears to be all or nothing. I'd love to hear otherwise from someone else if I've interpreted it wrong.

Q2. How do I get to applications?

A2: It appears Facebook is now picking your applications for you via the "Filters" in the left column. Based upon what's on your wall.

So right now, I have the Lucky Clover app (which I could give a cr@p about), Twitter and Gawker (again, I could give a cr@p how my friends made their updates), Causes (because one person keeps recruiting someone to her cause) and YouTube (because someone keeps posting videos this week).

So nice of FB to tell me which apps I want to visit. The only suggestion I have for you is to go to Settings --> Application Settings. All of your apps will be there and you can just click on the name.

Q3. How do I adjust how much video, etc. I see? I hate seeing each & every video post or link my friends make.

A3: It appears you can't, and I sent them a scathing e-mail (as a usability professional) about that.

I hate the fact that their answer to this is to hide a friend completely. This means that my cousin - who posts pictures of her kids - now has to be hidden. Because she also goes to every game and gives away presents and does whatever FB trend is hot. If I don't hide her (instead of filtering what I want to see from her), then my main "news feed" list is dominated by her.

In what universe that is a user-friendly feature, I'm not sure.

I know they do user testing, but as I said above, I'm not sure who they use for their testing pool.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | March 14, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

As long as Facebook still displays updates as "Rob Pegoraro . . ." putting anything that doesn't resemble a sentence just makes you look like you're using caveman-speak.

Posted by: jw703 | March 14, 2009 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Most of my friends still seem to use normal grammar (except in text messages) - but, then again, I'm 31 and most of my friends are at least in their mid-twenties, i.e. remember a time before text messaging.

I worry about kids growing up on Facebook and texts, though. Already I've heard horror stories from teachers, such as the one teacher who had a student write, in a paper, "o ight" (pronounced "aaaaghiight") instead of "all right".

Presumably they'll eventually learn at least to spell, but the more subtle damage may be the ingrained tendency to limit themselves to short, choppy sentences of 140 characters or less.

(Completely separate question: why must texts be limited to 140 characters or less, anyway? It can't be a matter of bits and bytes; the size difference between a 140-character text and a 200-character text must be miniscule.)

Posted by: marclips | March 14, 2009 8:39 PM | Report abuse

Please be tolerant. Some people got no class.

Posted by: sjfone | March 14, 2009 10:26 PM | Report abuse

It's not just about grammar anarchy. The new homepage is total design anarchy, too! At least you can still use a proper sentence structure and the third person, if you want -- they still give you a choice. But in no way can you get rid of the new cluttered, disorganized design! What happened to the white space and the clean, minimalist layout? Someone write a column about that too, please! Designers are concerned with the new busy layout as much as writers are concerned with the new status updates... Why does Facebook want to look more and more like the design nightmare that is MySpace?

Posted by: AlienCat | March 15, 2009 12:43 AM | Report abuse

@marclips -- The reason text messages are limited to 140 characters is because that happens to be the amount of extra space in each packet of data your cellphone sends to the network every little while, keeping in touch. Cell phone companies charge some folks without "unlimited texting" plans 5 cents, 10, cents, 20 cents, or more for each text message sent or received... when the truth is delivering those messages adds absolutely no cost whatsoever to their operations. Isn't *that* a joy to know?

Posted by: HaigEK | March 15, 2009 7:06 AM | Report abuse

Thank you "dungarees" and Chasmosaur1! Ditto!

Now, if only this comment section offered the option to "Recommend" each posted comment (like another major newspaper does).

Posted by: 22busy | March 16, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: hylen | March 17, 2009 8:33 PM | Report abuse

Facebook's traditional grammar? It's just traditional grammar. And when opposed by the phrase "creativity rules," I have to vote "syntax be damned."

I know as a hitchhiker in the late '70s, I routinely dropped vowels from my destination signs to better effect.

Everybody knws whre MPLS/STPL is.

Glad not to have to use "is." Never could figure out how to do that quickly.

Posted by: JHepCat72 | March 18, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

The funny thing is that you would often see (and I would often post) sentences that did not fit the format (e.g. John R is Happy Birthday Lauren!). However, the change still bothers me!

Posted by: moritasgus | March 20, 2009 1:24 AM | Report abuse

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