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

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.

Take a look at what happened with Facebook Home. It feels simple, but underneath the hood, it's all data-driven to be a great phone experience. Facebook knows that people look at their lock screens much more often than their phones. Facebook knows that people open up Facebook more often than anything else on their phones. And Facebook knows that picture content is the most engaging they have. Ergo, their differentiating experience is to show you Facebook photo content on the lock screen.

This is exactly what people should want, or rather, do on their phones. And yet, there are overwhelmingly negative reviews for Home on the Android Store, where the opperating system has an average rating of 2.2 out of 5, with more than half the current ratings coming in at 1, the lowest score possible. User after user says things to the effect of: "Great, but now I can't use the rest of my phone except for Facebook." 

Even if what they want to do most is use Facebook and this makes it better and easier, they don't want their phones' possibilities foreclosed. When Facebook's power -- as reflected in its designers' ability to control your experience -- runs up against your own perceived power, what do you do? What happens when you notice the opportunities, limitations, and obligations that are packed down into this term, user? 

It's a genuine dilemma that users don't have the collective power to solve and that Facebook doesn't have the incentive to address. Warily, warily, we roll along.

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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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