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Will Facebook's new features flop? Ask your mum, not Twitter

Our columnist Stuart Dredge was at Facebook's f8 conference this week, with his mum on at him to give Mark Zuckerberg a piece of her mind.

Mark Zuckerberg's keynote at Facebook's f8 conference yesterday was a surreal experience, and not just because it started with US comedian Andy Samberg pretending to be 'Zuck Dawg' on-stage before being confronted by the real thing.

While listening to and liveblogging the real Zuck talk about Facebook's new timeline profiles and open graph apps, I had half an eye on the current Facebook, and how people are still reacting to the news feed redesign that went live earlier this week. Not least my own mother encouraging me to grab a microphone at the earliest opportunity and ask Facebook's CEO why she suddenly can't see all the updates from her friends.

Meanwhile, my Twitter timeline was full of more techy types debating the new features and the new news feed. And much of the debate this week about the latter has focused on the many tweets bitching about the redesign.

While queuing up to get in to f8 yesterday morning, I even got vox-popped by an ABC camera crew and journalist, asking what I thought about the Twitter storm of protest about Facebook's changes. But here's the thing: Twitter matters much less than my mum when it comes to judging whether these changes are successful.

Your mum matters

Here's why: Twitter has 100 million monthly active users. Facebook has 800 million. The people Zuckerberg and co need to worry about are the 700 million people who aren't on Twitter. Your non-geek friends and family members. My mum. Not necessarily early adopters, but the people who have turned Facebook into the social juggernaut that it is today.

These people aren't usually on Twitter, but judging from my news feed, they're making their views known on Facebook itself, with a mixture of confusion and anger at things changing.

With every big (and sometimes small) change to its design, Facebook pisses off millions of people. Often this settles down after a few days, but sometimes it doesn't. We'll know which is the case for the new news feed and real-time ticker in the next few days, and then when the new timelines kick in, there'll be a similar cycle of feedback. This process has only been amplified by Facebook's growth into a platform used by non-geeks and geeks alike.

Timeline is gorgeous

As a member of the latter group, here are my thoughts on what Facebook announced yesterday. The new timeline profiles look beautiful -- a couple of people said the same thing to me yesterday, that they "look like Facebook redesigned by Apple".

They're visually great, and there's some fearsomely impressive data-crunching going on behind the scenes to identify what's important and meaningful in your online social life, to bring it to the surface. The caveat: how much time do people really spend in one another's profiles, as opposed to in their own news feed?

I also like what Facebook is doing by separating the news feed and the real-time ticker, with everything friends do scrolling by in the latter, while only deliberately shared items and patterns appearing in the former. Music is a good example of how this works: people playing individual tracks on Spotify appears in the live ticker, but if they create playlists, or if several friends have been listening to the same album, that'll pop up in the main news feed.

But is it A Good Thing?

This is where we come back to the geeks and non-geeks thing, when thinking about how people will react to these changes. The geeks fall into two camps: some will jump at the chance to connect everything to Facebook and share the minutiae of their lives on the social network, and others will not, fuming instead at the privacy implications and Zuckerberg's belief that everything should be shared and public. Both camps will be voluble about their views, and may dominate the debate over whether Facebook's changes are A Good Thing.

But it's the non-geeks who really matter here: several hundred million of them, many who started using Facebook since its large major design shift (the introduction of the news feed itself).

Will they see the benefit of letting various apps constantly share their activity with friends? Will they be pleased or peeved that Facebook's algorithms are deciding what updates are likely to be most interesting for them? And will they relish fine-tuning the new timeline profiles to reflect, as Zuck put it in his keynote: "The story of your life... All your stories, all your apps, and a new way to express who you are."

Twitter can't tell you the answer to these questions, but your mum can -- and make no mistake, you'll be the person your mum asks for help understanding and navigating these changes. Yesterday's f8 conference saw Facebook presenting its view of how social networking will evolve in the next five years. It's the non-geeks who will ultimately define whether that vision is a success or a failure.