I need the old style ... one that shows USEFUL things like the branding, a search box, a list of favorite spaces.
The users don't give a flying eff about their or other people's activities ... they want to actually DO stuff, and this crap gets in their way.
how the heck do I fix this mess?
By branding, I assume you mean the site logo, icon, and title. If I am incorrect in my assumption, please let me know, but you can still change this. Have a look at Changing the Site Logo:
To change the site logo:
Click Settings in the Confluence sidebar
The search is also still in the sidebar. You can see it in the top left-hand corner. A tip: you can type / to quickly bring up your search. Here's how it appears in my instance so you can have a look:
I hope this helps, but do let me know if you have any trouble.
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