Facebook’s identity crisis is in full swing. They published a press release appropriately titled “Hard Questions”. Spoiler alert… I don’t think they’re hard enough, but let’s take a look at what they have to say for themselves and cover immediate steps for we can do in the meantime.
It seems like they’re listening to their users when they say they’re making a change because “that’s what people tell us in surveys that they want to see.” As someone who’s spent most of my career doing user research, one of the most important things I always say to engineering teams is that we’re going to listen to what they say, but we’re mostly interested in learning about their behavior and goals. You never expect your users to design solutions for you — a.k.a. give them what they say they want want. There’s often a chasm between what they say and what their larger goals are.
My fear is that Facebook will use we-give-people-what-they-want as their convenient excuse to ship even more addictive crap. This has been the favorite argument of all sorts of businesses for justifying every kind of offensive and immoral business practice.
Big business has a way of overgeneralizing what one segment of their customers as representative of what all of their customers want. The people whose needs they’re most interested in too often end up being straight, white, American men – preferably the rich ones. With Facebook topping two billion users, there is no such thing as an average user. At-risk populations need special considerations that Facebook has often ignored, such as the real name policy that disadvantages people who do not use their birth name and fear reprisals, most notably transgender people.
The myth is that if you’ve run a survey to find out what most people want, you’ve done your due diligence. This makes room to justify all kinds of horrific choices in the name of being friendly to the customer. The airlines claimed businessmen would not fly unless a desirable, unmarried woman from 18–32 years old that weighed less than 140 pounds handed them their martini. Despite their objections, the EEOC in 1968 made it illegal to fire a woman because she fell outside those requirements. Somehow, there are still airplanes in the sky. Their business did not fail because they were forced to sacrifice the male fantasy of a cold steel airplane full of attractive, available stewardesses so that they could treat their female employees and customers with basic human respect.
Airlines aren’t the only big corporations which opposed changes on the grounds that their product was harming people. The car industry vehemently opposed design changes which would reduce crash fatalities. Padded dashboards and crumple zones compromised the body styles that dominated their ad campaigns: thin, elegant lines which, while beautiful, weren’t strong enough to withstand a collision.
The car industry blamed the individuals –“whacko” drivers were responsible for injuries. I expect Facebook to continue to argue that it’s our individual liability to use their product “responsibly.”
Why, then, does it seem crazy that tech companies have a responsibility to make safe products? It took government regulation mandating minimum performance standards and that they publicly publish data about crashes to make these changes. The good news is that fatalities are down 80% since then. EIGHTY percent!
We all know how hard it is to have a productive debate in a comments thread on Facebook. They claim their recent redesign will encourage more thoughtful interactions by making threads easier to see. I’ve spent more than a decade doing software interaction design, yet I fail to find anything about their cleaner typography and color scheme that could plausibly have that effect. Have a look for yourself.
I feel like I’m playing a decidedly unfun game of “Spot the Difference” from the Sunday comic pages. I keep looking at the screenshots to see if somehow I’ve missed something important, but I’m damned if I can see anything that would warrant their claims that this will make for healthier conversations.
It’s not that design changes couldn’t make for better discussion, it’s that I don’t think they’ve accomplished it. It’s a bit like giving a blue car a coat of silver paint and claiming you’ve made a safer car.
Design changes are the answer, but they will need to be far more significant that this. The kind of design changes that made cars safer were scary to their executives and sales departments. They had to change their body style lines. The cars ended up looking very different. I strongly believe the same will be the case to redesign Facebook to not be addictive.
I find it both amusing and unsurprising that the press releases would avoid associating themselves with the term “fake news.” Searches for “fake news” won’t turn up this article, I suspect by design. Successful PR walks the fine balance between speaking to the issues to those who care about them while not attracting any extra unnecessary attention from those who haven’t seen the scandal.
What we call things matters. Words are metaphors that shape how we perceive things. Fake is worse than false. Fake implies intent to deceive. False is a less hurtful infraction — being incorrect.
What enabled Congress to enact safety standards for cars? Knowing that the easiest way to save lives was seat belts and collapsible steering columns. A guy named Hugh did the research to discover these things. Ralph Nader wouldn’t have been able to write Unsafe At Any Speed, testify in front of Congress, and galvanize public opinion without Hugh’s research into how the design of cars harmed people. 99pi has a beautiful podcast about the history of the auto safety movement I highly recommend you check out.
The tech industry, on the other hand, is just barely beginning to come to terms with how much damage digital products can cause.
I am founding an organization called Hack Reality to do foundational research on how to build tech that makes us more human.
Hack Reality connects developers, designers, neuroscientists, psychologists, artists and musicians to build non-addictive tech. You can get on our mailing list today to learn more about our work and the conference coming up. This is something you can immediately take action on. Sadly, the rest of this list will take longer to achieve.
Facebook fired their editorial team of 26 contractors in August of 2016, right before the election. Shortly after fake news stories started appearing in the trending stories. They crashed the United States off a cliff in the name of saving a few $60k salaries. Umm. Maybe it’s time to rehire that team. I dunno. Maybe I’m crazy.
There’s so much more to say about this it’s gonna have to be its own post another day.
They’ve managed to keep users’ data within the walled garden — unlike Twitter, which has generous APIs that enable 3rd part clients like TweetDeck, Hootsuite, etc. Because we can’t (unlike EU citizens) truly own the status updates, photos, and events we and our friends post, we are entirely at the mercy of the Facebook execs and product managers’ decisions over which info is presented to us and in what format.
It’s their way or the highway. To a huge extent, Facebook’s power is unregulated and therefore absolute. If we could use third party clients to display and analyze our data we would have more control over our interactions. It will take government regulations to get this. The EU is leading the world on this legislation.
It’s a damn shame that Facebook moved fast and broke democracy. There’s no need to be surprised by how long it’s taking him to get a clue. It’s long been the regrettable human tendency to not know the harm you’ve done when your salary depends on your not noticing. If Zuckerberg peered directly into the depths of how influential his decisions are, he’d probably hide under the covers and not get out until his board had decided he was too incompetent to lead. I know I would.
They could start by apologizing when they mess up and commit real resources to researching which design changes would mitigate addiction. I don’t want to see a lily-livered press release and a puny $1M commitment to making thing better. A million dollars may seem like a lot of money to you, but it’s a rounding error to them. They made about half a million in revenue in the time you’ve spent reading this article. I know, real commitment is unlikely to happen. I’m not holding my breath.
The common objection goes “If you don’t like it, don’t use it.” Well, I wish that was so easy. It’s not possible to entirely opt out. Network effects range from privacy violations like FaceTwitGoogApple storing my contact data that they scraped from my friends’ phones even though I never consented to that data sharing, a practice known as shadow profiling, all the way up to the fake news clusterfuck that’s contributed to the extreme polarization of political viewpoints.
I can’t opt out of my president, no matter how much I would like.
Facebook is the unaccountable gatekeepers of the largest collection of human connection and the largest publishing platform both individually and for news organizations. Forty percent of Americans report that they get the majority of their news from Facebook. We can’t afford to opt out of pressuring the industry to do better.
In the meantime, we can start building things that *aren’t* addictive – technology that makes us feel more alive instead of enslaving us to it.
Wanna hear about the Hack Reality Conference we’re hosting in March 2018 in San Francisco? Of course you do! Toss your email my way and I’ll send you a note when we finalize date and location. Hope you can come!
In the meantime, check out our Embodied Reality podcast and YouTube channel where we interview such amazing creators as the award-winning Robin Arnott, the sound designer for The Stanley Parable; Dr. Carole Griggs, specialist in human development who is teaching an AI to love with Hanson Robotics; Venerable Yifa, a Yale lawyer, Harvard Visiting Scholar and founder of an order of Buddhist nuns advocating for mindful new technologies.
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