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The Strangeness of Facebook Home

Facebook’s new interface for smartphones is at odds with how the world uses computers.
June 11, 2013

When the iPhone was new, Steve Jobs showed one to Alan Kay and asked him if it was “good enough to criticize.” Kay, a computing pioneer, had been a hero to Apple’s founder: in 1972, when much of the world was still using magnetic tape, he had proposed to his colleagues at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center a small, portable, and, above all, personal computer called the Dynabook. Apple borrowed slavishly from Kay’s vision. Over a quarter-­century later, Kay told Jobs that the iPhone could be worth criticizing—but only if Apple enlarged the screen to the size of a 5-by-8-inch Moleskine notebook.

Kay’s 1972 proposal specified the properties of screen, processor, and memory, but the model of computing it described was as much moral as technical: a world of software “objects” that could be directly manipulated by the machine’s users, who might be children. This was four years after Douglas Engelbart’s demo of NLS (oNLine System), which introduced hypertext, the mouse, and videoconferencing, and two years before Ted Nelson published Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a sprawling manifesto of personal liberation through hypertext. All were part of a Palo Alto tradition that believed the computer should be (in Jobs’s words) a “bicycle for our minds.”

The Android operating system is also part of that tradition—mostly because it borrows the iPhone’s conventions, but also because of its parentage at Google, a company whose mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Both Apple and Google sell their users a kind of superhumanism made possible by trillions of processor clock cycles, echoing the Whole Earth Catalog’s 1968 dictum: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Facebook has different values. At its heart, it is a data structure, an enormous social graph of interconnected people, objects, and concepts. Improving that graph, increasing its breadth and density, is the driving ambition of the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg. The better the quality of the database, he believes, the better the proposition for users and advertisers. The network, the graph, is to Facebook not a means to an end but the thing itself.

It’s funny how rarely ­people ask what Facebook is for. It’s for perpetuating Facebook.

No other company is like Facebook. It is an advertising-driven business that grows by routing more human social signals through its enormous proprietary network. As people use mobile devices to do more things, the company needs to capture more of smartphone users’ attention. Globally, people send 8.6 trillion text messages each year, and not through Facebook. Choosing not to limit itself to an app on smartphones, Facebook has built on Android, grafting onto it a new interface layer it calls Facebook Home.

It is an imperfect graft, and it may not take. One reason is the less-than-happy implementation of Facebook’s idea. But the broader problem is that the social-­networking company’s vision of the relationship between humans and computers is at odds with the Palo Alto tradition, which the world has irreversibly embraced. If there is a conflict between Facebook Home and the Android system on which it is built, it’s this: Android knows many small things, and Facebook Home knows only one big thing.


First, the implementation. For two weeks I carried the HTC First, the first smartphone to come with Facebook Home installed, as my primary mobile device. The hardware is the standard marvel of miniaturization—that is, it’s wonderful today, but it will be next year’s junk. Launching Home on Android was probably a choice of expedience, because Android’s standard license permits modification. Facebook is reportedly negotiating with Apple to add the Home interface to iOS, but it’s easy to imagine those negotiations going on for some time.

From the moment the phone turns on, one encounters a lack of resolution (of the old-fashioned kind—the phone itself has a high-definition screen). The f-in-a-­circle logo on the box promises a Facebook experience, but the first thing the phone demands is your Google account information. And from that moment, Facebook Home is a series of compromises.

True to its name, Home overtakes the home screen of the phone, removing the dock of favored icons at the bottom and replacing them with the user’s avatar (in my case a photograph of my head). By tapping and holding the avatar, one brings up a few grayish icons; dragging the avatar onto an icon summons, for example, the application home screen. Perhaps Facebook hoped that making people move a tiny representation of themselves would create an intimate connection with the device. But the result is friction: too many steps between my finger and the application (say, Gmail) that I want to open.

When the user is not engaged with an app, the home screen displays images and status updates from Facebook friends. You can quickly swipe from update to update, or the phone will do it for you. The most recent update comes first, so the effect is of moving backward in time. A home screen of updates is clever, because picking up a phone and fiddling with it is something people do dozens of times a day, and Home colonizes those moments with Facebook content. But the selection algorithm is indiscriminate, and the noisiest people come to dominate the home screen; I learned a lot in two weeks about some old high-school friends but very ­little about the people closest to me. Though some meaningful signal rises above the background noise of chatting acquaintances, the final effect of the home screen is like being at a crowded reunion of half-remembered faces rather than on the eternal holiday promised in Facebook’s advertising campaign. Perhaps I am too old to appreciate the party.

To “like” an update, one can click a small icon or tap twice. In general, this is a bad phone for anyone with poor motor control. For me, swiping status updates was likely to pull down Android’s native notification drawer. Sometimes I would tap something on the home screen—a name, for example—by accident and find myself linked into Facebook’s Android app. It was easy to become lost in a sequence of actions, none of them meaningful.

And then there were the “chat heads.” When someone sends you a message, small, circular avatars appear with a pop. They indicate conversations in medias res; tapping one brings up a chat in progress. They are persistent, although they will disappear when you enter an app with a full-screen mode, such as the Kindle reader. The heads themselves are neat, but they are large enough to occasionally hide elements, even in Facebook’s own app. I spent some time looking for a way to post a Facebook status update before I realized that the button I wanted was behind the smiling face of my wife.

A way of being

The real goal of Home is to replace apps with people, making the process of interacting with a smartphone inherently social. The marketplace has so far responded without warmth. The price of the HTC First has dropped from $99 to 99 cents with a contract. And yet given Facebook’s size and the scope of its ambitions, and the fact that Home is a small effort in the scheme of things, it’s safe to assume that all this is just a shot across the bow. Home-like features, such as the chat heads, have already found their way into Facebook’s app, and they will no doubt appear in other phones. The company must own more of the smartphone—not of the market, but of the phone itself—to continue to grow.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire is also based on Android. Amazon sells digital access to books, films, and the like, which is to say that Amazon understands its users as consumers of media: they might do other things with their Fires (including checking Facebook), but they are interested in personal interactions with media—interactions that can be sustained for hours or even, in the case of some books, weeks.

But hours spent reading a book are hours lost to Facebook. Smaller pieces of content that encourage immediate reaction do more to bolster and enlarge the social graph. Facebook has created an environment that elevates a few lines of text, the individual photo, people who can be poked, things that can be liked. Dancing, live music, vacations with good phone reception—all these are good for the social graph.

This is the stuff of the home screen in Facebook Home. The chat heads are small and the conversations brisk; I didn’t have a chat longer than a few minutes, and a typical sentence might be just a few words. When these chats were done, they faded immediately from my memory, as did most of the things I swiped away on the home screen. The goal of Facebook Home is ambiance, not permanence.

But when we use computers, we’re used to creating and consuming things that possess some permanence. Even though smartphone interfaces generally abstract away files and folders, the underlying model of computing has remained unchanged since Kay’s time at Xerox PARC: the user opens an application, loads it into memory, and uses software tools to operate on specific blobs of data. Dropbox is one of many services that hold your files in the cloud so that they can be accessed from any phone, tablet, or computer. You may never share what you create or own, or you may share it only years later. People have written and read novels on their smartphones. The joke about the first iPhone was that it was a great little computer but a lousy phone. That didn’t stop people from buying it: they understood the value of having a computer in their pocket.

The social network, however, is not a tool but a way of being. If you want to leave a note for yourself on Facebook, using the service as a notebook, you must share it with yourself—selecting the “only me” option from a list that also includes “public” and “friends.” It’s funny how rarely people ask what Facebook is for. We’ve just come to accept it, this mountain that rose up one day and is never quite out of view. It’s not really for anything, certainly not for tasks and documents. It’s for perpetuating and improving the social graph. It’s for Facebook.

Moral vision

Facebook’s self-reflexive utility explains why the company finds privacy so tricky. The freedom to read and experience things privately is essential to self-development, the core proposition of the Emersonian ideal to which the Palo Alto tradition is heir. But Facebook’s core proposition is that when we collectively build the social graph, everyone benefits. The exact nature of those gains is perplexing; the company’s commercials show a lot of young people touching and smiling. Something good.

It’s not simply the case that ­Zuckerberg is sneaky in his promotion of sharing and creepy in his ambivalence about privacy. Rather, he is a true believer. Privacy lowers the value of the social graph. If one sincerely believes in the merits of the graph, then one should be suspicious of privacy, because privacy is selfish.

The moral vision of the Dynabook posited that people would use technology to manipulate code and data, to create models of the world—as many as they needed in order to understand it. In contrast, Facebook has a single model of the world, unapologetically monolithic: the canonical graph of the relationships between more than a billion human beings. If the company is to grow, it must insert itself between people and their smartphones; there are still simply too many moments spent watching things, or reading things, or making things, that it does not own.

Paul Ford is a writer and computer programmer who lives in Brooklyn. He is writing a book of essays about Web pages.

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