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

"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.

While these things might seem like a problem solely for users, I think they're a problem for Facebook, too. Facebook has relentlessly focused on what their users want, according to the metrics they can capture. The company itself, its goals and aspirations, profit and growth targets, are subsumed into the quest to put the user first. And yet, Facebook is a company. They are a mediating force. They are not a chair or a doorbell or a bridge, even if that fiction creates the most convenient experience for the company and its users.

But there's something that happens when the reality shows through. People get so used to Facebook disappearing that when the company or the technology inevitable rears its head, they are appalled to find that they've been communicating on a tightly managed, for-profit system all along.  Which is why, oddly, it might help Facebook to design in more signs of mediation, a little more chrome, a little less perfection.

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