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

In some cases, as with Maschmeyer's project, Graph Search, Facebook is willing to force its users through a quick demonstration -- known as a new user experience, or NUX -- so that they can keep the permanent design even simpler. Even though the grammar required by Graph Search is only sort of intuitive, a couple of simple examples taught most people how to use it. That let Maschmeyer reduce all the permanent user instructions for a complex and powerful search tool into exactly one line of text on a blue background: 

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"Some of the best architecture isn't about, 'Look at this amazing beautiful building I made," Maschmeyer told me, "But look at the amazing activities that I'm allowing people to undertake within this space. And designing the space to facilitate in the best possible way those activities. I think we take the exact same approach with our 'boxes.'"

He continued, "We want to create the space in which people can communicate the emotions, ideas, thoughts, wonderful things they find, beautiful images that they see in the most efficient and clean way possible," he concluded.

"I think we're lucky at Facebook, people share a lot of really beautiful content. We don't really need to add any more to that," another designer Vivian Wang told me. 

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Vivian Wang (Alexis Madrigal).

Similar sentiments have been expressed all the way up the chain and into the mouth of Mark Zuckerberg himself. And I think Facebook has created the most efficient engine for sharing, archiving, and monetizing text and pictures that the world has ever known. 

And that goes for private as well as public communications. A large percentage of the interactions on Facebook happen privately, outside all the mechanisms Facebook has for rewarding and encouraging sharing. Peter Deng, who manages Facebook's communications platforms, told me that people spend a lot of time communicating with close friends on Facebook. In fact, for any given user, 80 percent of the messages that he or she sends, goes to a group of about four people.

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."

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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'?"

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