Enlarge Dawn KruseAround ten o’clock on most nights, Matt Kruse will kiss his wife and two daughters goodnight, sit down in front of his computer and start coding. It’ll be one or two in the morning before he goes to bed. He works as a Web application developer at a staffing company during the day, but those late-night hours in his Illinois home are where he works on what he calls “who I really am.”
Kruse spends those hours making Facebook better. He doesn’t get paid for it, and he’s not an employee of the company (although it has tried to hire him before). The product of those hours is called Social Fixer—a browser extension designed to improve and enhance the site. It has become one of the most popular solutions for anyone who doesn’t like Facebook’s interface. Kruse says he doesn’t have an exact figure, but he estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million people use it, along with an e-mail list that boasts 1.4 million subscribers.
Social Fixer uses Javacript to modify Facebook’s interface. It gives you dozens of options for customizing how you see Facebook: you can separate updates into tabs, enable mouse-over image previews, change the layout, filter posts from your friends, give everything a theme and even hide the bits you find disagreeable. It’s a huge amount of work to keep going, but although Kruse has a tiny Paypal donations button on the bottom of his website to cover his expenses, he says he hasn’t made any efforts to profit from it, despite being contacted several times by people who sniffed money to be made.
So far, he’s turned them all down. “There was one person a while ago who seemed pretty promising,” he says. His tone is gently bemused, as if not quite believing that people actually want to pay money for his work. “I’ve had ten offers over the past four years from people who say they want to add advertising inside it or attach some additional software to the installer… But the way they wanted to implement it technically would have put my users at risk of them being malicious, so I couldn’t do that.”
Social Fixer was born in 2009 when Kruse became frustrated at not being able to tell the difference between new posts and ones he’d read already. “It was like looking at your inbox and seeing the same thing every time you loaded it up,” he says.
Kruse showed it to colleagues at his job. Buoyed by their enthusiasm for his script, he put it online under the name Better Facebook. It got an audience fast, and Kruse found his hands full dealing with updates, modifying the software to deal with Facebook’s changing interface.
“It was a big part of my life, and it affected us very much, and affected my view of things,” the soft-spoken Kruse says. What happened to his son, he explains, affected how he deals with his often vocal users—especially those unhappy with some aspect of the program.
“I’m more understanding of people,” he says. “There are a lot of people who have things going on in their lives, and knowing the struggles I had personally to hold my family and job together, there are a lot of people who have their own struggles. When they’re on there saying, this doesn’t work, this really annoys me, I can think, maybe they’re having a rough day or are going through a rough time. Maybe Facebook is all they have to connect to people. I try to keep in mind that someone might be having the worst day of their life today.”
Shortly after Better Facebook started to get popular, the company’s lawyers came calling. But while these sorts of visits usually end in acrimony and drawn-out court cases, this one had a happy ending—more or less. All the lawyers wanted was for Kruse to drop the ‘Facebook’ from the name. He happily complied, renaming it Social Fixer—and soon afterwards, they invited him to interview for a role there.
Protective they might be, but Facebook let Kruse carry on tinkering with Social Fixer. It’s not a courtesy it’s extended to others, coming down hard on similar programs like Unfriend Finder and FB Purity, blocking them from accessing the site.
Enlarge / Social Fixer back-end. Steve Fernandez, a British programmer, created FB Purity in 2009; like Kruse, he’d become frustrated at not being able to see what he wanted on Facebook’s homepage. But unlike its kid-gloves treatment of Kruse, Facebook got serious. Fernandez says that although initially it just asked him to remove its trademark from his program name, it then “decided to block my domain name from being shared on the Facebook site, to try and limit the spread of the app.” It led to a protracted fight between Fernandez and Facebook, which, he says, has led to his account being disabled and confrontations with the site’s legal team.
“As I am sure you are aware,” one of their lawyers wrote in an e-mail to Fernandez, “Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities prohibits integrations that impair the proper working or appearance of Facebook, including those that interfere with page rendering… Your extension was reported as interfering with and/or impairing site functionality and page rendering and links to your site have been blocked.”
When asked why it gave Social Fixer a pass and not FB Purity, Facebook’s press officer Jillian Stepanki declined to comment.
Kruse has done his best to steer Social Fixer clear of certain areas of Facebook that he feels might be more trouble than they’re worth—he’s kept out of the company’s thorny privacy and data security issues, for one. “I don’t have anything to do with privacy or security,” he explains “People have asked me for features to restrict what people can see, or can I change my privacy settings to be ideal, and I don’t want to mess with any of that. I don’t want to be responsible for a screw-up where somebody makes a post thinking Social Fixer would hide it, and it turned out to be public. I don’t want to be liable for anything like that.”
“There’s nothing I can do to prevent Facebook from snooping on any of the data—they own it, it’s on their site. The only thing I do is affect what people see in their browsers.”
It’s not just Facebook that has tried to lure Kruse away from Illinois. Google has offered him a job—not once, but twice. Kruse turned the company down both times—he didn’t want to move his family all the way to California and didn’t fancy living somewhere as expensive as Google’s Silicon Valley base. But more than that, he says, it would have forced him to give up Social Fixer—Facebook is a direct competitor to Google, so he would have, in effect, been working on a competitor’s product.
“I think of my side-work as who I really am,” he says. “I go to my job and do my work, but I’m a creative person, and I like to build things. To give that up and walk away from it would be like sacrificing who I really am to get something that I’m not really.”
Despite the fact that he is, in effect, changing the work of Facebook’s engineers, Kruse says that he really appreciates what they do: “They do a fantastic job of creating something incredibly complex, way beyond anything I could do, and I wouldn’t exist unless they did.”
Listing image by Dawn Kruse