One day in March, I was sitting across from Facebook's design director, Kate Aronowitz, at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park when she told me, "It takes a lot of work to create the perfect empty vessel." In this near koan, lay a design philosophy and an explanation. Facebook as a series of beautiful empty vessels into which users pour their text and photographs, hearts and minds.
Over the next few weeks, I kept thinking about this near koan: How do you design an empty vessel? Is there any such thing? So I went back to Facebook and asked some more questions.
"We tend to think of everything in terms of social design. The box, for us, is a vehicle to allow one person to communicate with another. It's entirely about who's on the other end of that box, not really the box itself," Facebook designer Russ Maschmeyer told me in a different conference room. "Our overarching design goal is to make that box as invisible as possible, so that your content is the thing that's most important."
That is not as easy or as simple as it sounds. The seemingly small decisions about how boxes should look, how the text of the site reads, and what actions users can take are defining what Facebook is. Like the government backers of the institutionalization of the Postal Service, the monopolistic heads of Ma Bell, the nerds who developed email protocols, or the suits who've directed the deployment of the nation's cell phone networks, Facebook's designers are structuring the social experiences of vast numbers of people. Who they are and how they think will change the way a billion people experience the world, not to mention, what Facebook is.