The Soul of a New (Facebook) Machine

Facebook finally brings a phone to market, sort of.
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The rock music stopped. The lights dimmed. People in boots and heels scurried back and forth whispering. The music returned and faded away again. The Facebook "f" was projected on four screens in front of the room. A TV cameraman stood on a platform in the middle of the room. There were people in blue Facebook T-shirts behind me, and seven rows of journalists ahead of me. There was a hush. Excitement.

The executives walked out from backstage: Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Chou, CEO of HTC, Ralph De La Vega of AT&T, and three other Facebook higher-ups. The non-reporters to my left broke into applause. The gaggle of Facebook PR people whooped over my right shoulder.

"Hey," Zuckerberg said. The crowd laughed. "Today we're finally going to talk about that Facebook phone. Or more accurately, we're going to talk about how you can turn your Android phone into a great, simple social device."

We had gathered here today in Menlo Park to hear about a new, very deep integration between Facebook and the Android operating system that, for those who download it (it'll be available next Friday), will completely redefine their interactions with their phones. 

"Home" works like this: Instead of a traditional lock screen, visual content from the News Feed will be pushed to users. Once you unlock it, you'll see that same content, but you'll be able to interact with it. The pictures will flip automatically or you can do that part yourself. All messages will pop *over* whatever you're doing on the phone in little circles Facebook calls (seriously) Chat Heads. 

Facebook has not built its own operating system, if we take operating system to mean a way of running the guts of a computer. But if an OS is a way of interacting with a computer -- an interface and a philosophy -- then this is most certainly Facebook's entry into the OS wars.

"The home screen is really the soul of your phone," Zuckerberg said. "You look at it 100 times a day." And so, naturally, Facebook is going for the soul. But the biggest play here is not technical or strategic, but rhetorical. Facebook wants to change the way people think about technologies.

In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg immediately went to a higher register. He told us, as he normally does, that Facebook's mission is to "make the world more open and connected," because "these two concepts are a lot of what makes us human." (One can practically imagine Evgeny Morozov roaring, "WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS OPPPPEEEENNNN?")

The human-centric nature of Facebook's approach remained at the core of Zuckerberg's pitch throughout the event. "What if instead of our phones being designed around apps, we flip that around?" he asked. "So that we made it so that our phones were designed around people first."

And by people, of course, Zuckerberg means "Facebook friends." Throughout Zuckerberg's talk, people and Facebook friends were used interchangeably. And for Zuckerberg and his employees, I think this is technically true. For them, all the people they care about are not only on Facebook, but active users who devote time and resources to building digital streams that are legible to other people as their lives.

So, while you can read the Facebook phone announcement as the story of the company's deeper integration with Google's Android operating system, I also read Facebook Home as a story of the integration that Facebook's employees have with their own product. And they'd like for the rest of the world to experience what they do. 

Really what I mean the business and accounting category of ROW, or Rest of World. With billions of people about to make the jump into Internetted life with a smartphone, not a computer, the very definition of 'computing,' is up for grabs.

"For more than 30 years, computers have mostly been about tasks. They were too expensive, clunky and hard to use for you to want to use them for much else," Zuckerberg said. "The modern computing device," by which he meant mostly phones, "is for making us more connected, more social, and more aware. And Home, by putting people first and then apps, by flipping the order, is one of the many small but meaningful changes with technology in time."

So Home is a move for the soul not just of the phone, but of the computer. "The very definition of what a computer is and what it should be [has not been decided], and when it is, I think a lot of that definition is going to be about people-first [i.e. Facebook friends first]," Zuckerberg said.

(Note the Borg Complex language: "is going to be about" rather than "we're trying to make be about.")

Why do I think it is so important not to allow Zuckerberg to redefine "people" as "Facebook friends"? Because we need to be able to evaluate this technology's impact very specifically within Facebook's culture and aims. 

Facebook Home is not a story about "making the world more open and connected," in general. This a story about Facebook "making the world more open and connected," with all the specific definitions the company brings to those ideas.

It's in that context, that you see industry watchers like Om Malik of GigaOm tweeting things like, "I am seriously concerned about Facebook Home and privacy challenges. They will know when we are sleeping. Where we live. Be careful," and Kashmir Hill, Forbes' privacy reporter, tweeting things like, "Facebook has come up with an excellent way to get people to have Facebook running on their phones all the time, collecting lots of GPS info."

Facebook does allow people to do things that they love to do. And that's what's great about the product. But it tries to hide the tradeoffs. 

 While Zuckerberg constantly calls on our desire to be social as a way of justifying the importance of Facebook, he refuses to think past the idea that Facebook is simply a tool for connecting with other people. It is a tool -- and that tool structure the way people experience each other. "There's this analogy where technology is a tool... one way I think about Facebook is that it augments your social sense," Zuckerberg said. "Humans are social."

It's not that I think Facebook communications are inferior to other ones, whether that's face-to-face, Twitter, talking on the phone, or standard text messaging. That's not the point. The point is that they are *not the same* as these other things.

As for the actual product itself, Facebook Home looks nice. It's pretty. The interface works in ways that will be easy to learn and understand. If it works as demo'd, I agree with Zuckerberg that it will be "the best version of Facebook there is."

Will it be worth opening up every part of your phone interaction to Facebook in order to access that experience? Do you want your definition of a computer to center on Facebook Friends and the limited et of actions you can take with them? I can't answer that for you, but I can say that it is a tradeoff, and the more you think about it, the better.

On the one hand, Zuckerberg will say, "Chat Heads give you this immediate personal connection to the people you care about." He'll then note, with a chuckle that's echoed by the audience, "The most fun thing is when you're done with them" -- that is to say these Chat Heads that are supposed to represent people -- "you just throw them away at the bottom."

Why take this chuckability seriously? Well, I'm only taking Facebook's ambitions seriously. They want these representations to *be* our friends. And then they have made throwing them away easy and fun, even going to the length to build realistic physics into the action.

Sure, it's fun. But it's also callow. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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