Unexamined Privilege is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”

UNEXAMINED PRIVILEGE is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”—a feature conceived and designed by a group to whom nothing terrible has happened yet. A brilliant upper-middle-class student at an elite university conceived Facebook, and college students, as everyone knows, were its founding user group. The company hires recent graduates of expensive and exclusive design programs and pays them several times the going rate to brainstorm and execute exciting new features.

I’m not saying that these brilliant young designers are heartless, or that individuals among them haven’t personally experienced tragedy—that would be mathematically impossible. I have taught some of these designers, and worked with others. Those I’ve known are wonderful people who want to make a difference in the world. And in theory (and sometimes in practice) a platform like Facebook lets them do that.1

But when you put together teams of largely homogenous people of the same class and background, and pay them a lot of money, and when most of those people are under 30, it stands to reason that when someone in the room says, “Let’s do ‘your year in review, and front-load it with visuals,’” most folks in the room will imagine photos of skiing trips, parties, and awards shows—not photos of dead spouses, parents, and children.

So it comes back to this. When we talk about the need for diversity in tech, we’re not doing it because we like quota systems. Diverse backgrounds produce differing points of view. And those differences are needed if we are to put the flowering of internet genius to use actually helping humanity with its many terrifying and seemingly intractable problems.

If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps—things that make an already privileged life even smoother—and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart.


1 Of course, not all my former students and employees work at Facebook; most don’t. But those who have gone there had other, equally lucrative options; they took the job to make Facebook, and maybe the world, a little better.

Managing Facebook Like. Or not.

I’M ON FACEBOOK. I want to see everything I supposedly “like” and prune the list of things I don’t. There should be a page where I can do this—that’s UX Design 101—but instead there’s just a sidebar box on my profile page showing a rotating, random sampling of liked items. The box is fine as an outward-facing device: on my profile page, it gives visitors a teasing hint of some of the cool stuff a deep guy like me digs. But inward-facing-wise, as a tool for me to manage my likes, it’s useless.

At the top of sidebar box, there’s text stating that I currently have “372 likes.” The text is a hyperlink. Here’s what should happen when I click that link: I should be taken to a page listing my likes (or the first, say, 100 of my likes, with a pagination tool). Each liked item should link to its corresponding Facebook page in case I need to refresh my memory about it. (This is the one part Facebook actually gets right.) More importantly, each liked item should be preceded by a checkbox. I should be able to check off 50 items on the page that I no longer like, and press a button allowing me to delete them all at once.

A number of elegant variations will occur to even the least experienced interface designer at this point: Perhaps there’s a drop-down allowing me to choose functions other than deletion; perhaps there’s a link to “select all” or de-select all; and so on. Such variations could make Facebook’s hypothetical best-practice “like management” page easier, faster, or more pleasant to use. But they are pretty much beside the point, as Facebook does not provide a like management page when I click that stupid link.

When I click that link, what I get instead of a useful, simple management page—the kind we’ve been building in hypertext for over 15 years—is a small, in-page pop-up window, with a scrolling sidebar … because, like the sidebar box, this window is also a tease instead of a tool.

Inside that scrolling box is every item I’ve liked. I have to scroll to see anything beyond the first handful of liked items. There are no checkboxes. There is no master switch to delete one or more items. There isn’t even an in-place deletion button beside each listed item, like the primitive edit tool in the first iPhone 3G.

No, my friends. There’s nothing.

If I want to delete a liked item, get this! I have to click the item’s hyperlink, go to the individual item page, and then hunt around on that page in search of a tiny link that would let me “unlike” that item. If I manage to find that link and unlike that one item, there’s no confirmation dialog, and I’m not returned to the floating box, because the item’s like page doesn’t know about the box.

All that JavaScript, and no connections. All those pages, and not even the most basic tools.

And nobody complains. Why? Because nobody really uses liked items. Indeed nobody really uses Facebook, except to post links and photos and comment on their friends’ links and photos. Liked items are for advertisers, they’re not for you. In Facebook’s estimation, you don’t need to remove a page you no longer like, because you are never going to visit it anyway.

Hey, they have the stats, they know what their users do and don’t do.

Facebook is a charnel house of features that appeal to advertisers and businesses without actually being used, supported by tools that don’t work, for people who don’t care.

Now I, uh, like Facebook fine, for the same reasons you do (if you do), and I generally ignore its well-branded but otherwise abortive gestures toward key features that have made it famous without actually doing a damned thing—“like” being the people’s Exhibit A. But as a designer, it bothers me, not only because badly designed things bother designers, but because badly designed things in a highly successful product spur a lust for imitation. I don’t want our clients to think “like” works. I don’t want them desiring similarly broken functionality on sites we design for them. I don’t want them thinking users don’t need tools that work, simply because millions of users don’t complain about broken tools on Facebook. Tools like like and its sad little pop-up.

Me no like.

Wednesday Links

The State of the Web 2008 | Web Directions Surveys

Web Directions and Westciv are surveying web designers to find out such things as what browsers and operating systems developers use and test for; and which design and development practices and technologies they favor, including HTML, CSS, JavaScript and back end languages. Take the survey!

Cultivating Conversations | Jason Santa Maria

A proposal for improving comments.

The Grid System

The Grid System is a resource for all designers to learn about the benefits of using grid systems, golden ratios and baseline grids. Fabulous. Via Coudal.

This Is The Vanderbilt Republic.

Short (2.5 minute) video of photographer George Del Barrio’s shoot of urban folk musician Rahsaan Salandy, for his upcoming album.

Why Twitter Turned Down Facebook

Mr. Williams emphasized many times that, despite its buzz, Twitter is still a tiny, two-year-old company with just 25 employees. “It’s good that the expectations are high, but give us a minute,” he joked.

Headset Hotties

Imagine loneliness so intense that you begin to notice the attractiveness of headset wearers in stock photos. Imagine time so heavy on your hands that you create a website dedicated to your sad little obsession. Imagine no more. Discover Headset Hotties. (From those wonderful people who brought us Instant Rimshot.)

[tags]links, twitter, grids, gridsystem, comments, conversations, stateoftheweb, survey, westciv, headset, hotties, coudal, filmmaking, photography, George Del Barrio, Rahsaan Salandy, Jason Santa Maria, WebDirections, Twitter, NYTimes, Facebook[/tags]

Facebook, Twitter, and Bird Flu

If “Our Broken Borders” should someday turn into a ratings loser for CNN’s Lou Dobbs, perhaps he can switch to “The Dwindling Productivity of the American Worker: Is Facebook Sapping Our National Vigor?”

Like comic books, rock and roll, heavy metal, gangsta rap, gaming, and MySpace, the web is no longer an easy card for parent-scaring pundits and politicians to play. But social networking sites AKA community-focused web applications AKA “web 2.0” can still be blamed for a variety of social ills. That they are actually blameless doesn’t matter. The truth never matters in this game.

And since it’s easier to say “Facebook” than “the aggregate of new social networking sites and applications such as Flickr and Twitter,” there’s every chance that Facebook will take the whipping for the entire category.

That this will actually increase Facebook’s market value is known but won’t matter to the people who pretend to be outraged about “the Facebook generation” or “social not-working” or whatever the pundits end up calling the “crisis.”

The same thing happened when religious authorities tried to ban “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Exorcist,” “Hail Mary,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” In every case, people who otherwise wouldn’t have bought tickets for these films, showed up, lined up, and even bought popcorn.

At least “The Exorcist” was entertaining.

And of course, parental outrage and the PMRC have sold plenty of rap and metal.

If Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking apps get boosted by fake outrage, they’ll acquire more investors. And they’ll need them, since all these applications run at a loss, and all of them suffer from terrible scaling problems.

The scaling problems will grow worse as the apps become more popular; investors will buy smaller and smaller pieces of a less and less viable business concern; and when it pops, we’ll be back to the bird flu movie of the week.

So the planet warms and the Kenyans kill their neighbors and we tweet about nothing and hope the servers hold out.

[tags]socialnetworking, loudobbs, cnn, facebook, twitter, web2.0, applications, webapps[/tags]