How Facebook Designs the 'Perfect Empty Vessel' for Your Mind

It is just a fact that there is no better designed way online to talk with friends (who are on Facebook, of course). The grumbling you hear about Facebook -- some on these very pages -- is a testament to how powerful the system is, how well it works, and the level of usage it inspires.

* * *

Disappearing from the user's view doesn't just happen through the graphical user interface elements. The text also has to communicate without drawing attention to itself. Content strategist Alicia Dougherty-Wold is responsible for the words that you see on Facebook. "The content strategy team is a really important part of that holistic experience disappearing. In all of the prompts on the site like, 'What's on your mind?' we are using a voice and tone is deliberately very conversational to make you feel at ease," Dougherty-Wold said. "We're trying to set that feeling that you are in a comfortable room on a comfortable sofa in a comfortable place to talk to the people you care about the most. And we're trying to do that very subtly with language."

They even take care not to create any emotional friction as you enter your life details into Facebook. One fantastic example that Dougherty-Wold gave me was adding a "life event" on Timeline. "There's a menu of those events and a typical menu would list the options alphabetically," she said, "but if we did, you'd have divorce sitting on top of engagement. The content strategist who worked on that menu had a tremendous amount of empathy." The list was reordered to follow the arc of a relationship. "Just by not making you think about divorce at the same time that you're thinking about engagement," she concluded, "we're getting out of your way."

alicia.jpg

Alicia Dougherty-Wold (Alexis Madrigal).

In fact, they have three rules for disappearing from sight: "Keep it simple, get to the point, and talk like a human." These are not too far away from the rules we try to use here on The Atlantic Tech.

"I think if we're doing our job, you're not feeling like it's mediated."

But one thing kept sticking for me as I thought about how remarkably and cleverly constructed the Facebook world really is: While the interface and words might not attract your attention, they are still structuring your behavior. And you'll probably never even notice. It's kinda nice that Facebook doesn't guide you to think about divorce while you're entering in your engagement. But that decision is still a reflection of an ethos, and that's something the company doesn't seem to want to own.

This crystallized for me during an exchange I had with Dougherty-Wold towards the end of our conversation. After she told me that Facebook's writers try to talk like humans, I replied "But it is fundamentally still the voice of the borg. It's not like [users] are talking to a human. It is still a system that they are interacting with and not another person."

"They are talking to each other, right?" she countered. "If you're using Facebook, you're telling your story to whoever you choose to be friends with."

"But it's still mediated through the structure and you're the voice of that layer of mediation," I said

"I think if we're doing our job, you're not feeling like it's mediated," she said

"But it is," I insisted.

"When you call your mom on the phone, are you thinking, 'I am talking on a device'?"

"That's an interesting question," I said. "I would say yes. But I can understand why people say no."

"I would say, I'm talking to my mom. The only time I would say I'm talking to a device is when my cell carrier drops."

At any given moment, yes, it is probably more important to you that you're talking to your mother than talking on a phone. But what about the system that allows that voice to come through that particular handset? I see Doughtery-Wold's point, but I wonder, what responsibility do the system makers have in helping us think about the system? 

"You don't improve the experience of nailing things by pretending the hammer doesn't exist."

Can we wave away the structure of our tools so easily? And are we comfortable with doing so around the highway system or the way food is produced in this country or gun ownership? Are all technologies neutral? ("Facebook doesn't friend request, people do.") 

When it comes to the system that Doughtery-Wold uses to talk with her mother, cell phone companies' unreliable services unintentionally highlight their weaknesses -- and perhaps the weaknesses of the way spectrum is allocated in the United States, which might motivate people to some kind of political or consumer action. Facebook does the same when it has privacy snafus or switches up the way the service works. Wait, there was a structure all along?

Designer Dylan Fareed, former director of technology at 20x200, disputed the idea that Facebook's mediumness could simply disappear.

"Pure conduits don't actually exist. Ideas communicated over Facebook/Twitter/SMS/emoji/passenger pigeon/smoke signal are as much about the medium shaping the idea as they are actually about the idea itself," Fareed told me via email. "And without any doubt a primary purpose for interface is to make legible what is otherwise happening invisibly. You don't improve the experience of nailing things by pretending the hammer doesn't exist."

And Facebook, Fareed argued, being as integrated into a billion people's lives as it is, "has a responsibility to be more communicative about what happens under the surface when we interact with their services."

They've built an enticing chair, and they let me sit in it for free, but they're selling my farts to the highest bidder.

After all, the UX researcher Nielsen had a simple argument for chrome, the very thing Facebook is seeking to minimize. "Chrome empowers users," he wrote, "by providing a steady set of commands and options that are always visible." Less Chrome means less options for users. Less chrome means being funneled down paths without even knowing that others might exist. Of course, they might be the very paths that you would be most likely to choose -- in fact, they almost certainly are.

***

Last year, Facebook compared itself to a chair, the consummate tool, in an advertisement that's been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube.

Chairs. Chairs are made so that people can sit down and take a break. Anyone can sit on a chair. And if the chair is large enough, they can sit down together and tell jokes and make up stories or just listen. Chairs are for people. And that is why chairs are like Facebook. Doorbells. Airplanes. Bridges. These are things people use to get together so they can open up and connect about ideas and music and other things people share.

But is this an apt comparison? If Facebook was a chair, what kind of chair would it be? Mike Without any prompting or sending him the advertisement, Mike Monteiro of Mule Design had a harsher take on Facebook's status as a designed object.

A well-designed chair not only feels good to sit in, it also entices your ass towards it. So this is nothing new to Facebook. Where it gets interesting to me is when you start asking to what end you are designing. The big why. In the chair example, the relationship is clear. If I can design a chair that entices your ass, then you will buy it. I've traded money for ass happiness (and back happiness, but that's less sexy). But it's clear who the vendor and who the customer is in that case.

Where I have issues with Facebook is that they're dishonest about who the customer is. They've built an enticing chair, and they let me sit in it for free, but they're selling my farts to the highest bidder.

Monteiro admits that 90 percent of the web works the same way. "Facebook bothers me more than most because they're both so blatant and so good at it," he said.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called 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 website 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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