With last week's unveiling of Facebook Home we can't help but wonder: What is Mark Zuckerberg's endgame?
When the electronic telephone was invented in the 19th Century, it was a single-use device that required purchase of the phone, and regular payment to the service providers building a vast network of wiring to make the phone useful. Computers have obviated the telephone in many ways, connecting to a parallel network where a wider variety of information can be transmitted and the device connected to its endpoints is better equipped to translate that data into many different experiences. A third economy is embedded within this flourishing of services and functions, based on the sale of proprietary constructs of data that can be bought, delivered, and translated into something usably human inside one's pocket computer. Since users have already paid twice by the time they arrive in an app store, there is heavy incentive to create free apps that make money after the point of acquisition, by offering tiered services or by inserting advertisements based on a capturing and translating user data.
All of the services Home will offer are already possible on most smartphones, which contain photo-sharing functionality, chat features, video chat, and "friends" lists. Home reorganizes these features under Facebook's slightly less fragmentary interface, a marginal exchange of convenience for the opportunity to extract more and more personal data points for Facebook's benefit.
Facebook Home is the most invasive of these, an app that wants to create a standard for how you use your entire device, without actually making the device. "Apps aren't the center of the world," Zuckerberg said in the press conference announce Home, "people are." Facebook Home is an attempt to serve that ethos, an app that's outgrown its diminutive size and wants to redesign one's entire phone based on one particular use of it, to make users think all the capabilities of their computer phones are defined by what Facebook sees a use for.
"We’re a community of a billion-plus people, and the best-selling phones—apart from the iPhone—can sell 10, 20 million," Zuckerberg told Wired's Steven Levy. "If we did build a phone, we’d only reach 1 or 2 percent of our users. That doesn’t do anything awesome for us. We wanted to turn as many phones as possible into 'Facebook phones.' That’s what Facebook Home is."
The service, which replaces the traditional Android interface with a Coverflow-centric interface for both lockscreens and home screens, allows users more immediate access to the data stream Facebook depends on its users to create, which it then organizes, ranks, and redistributes. It's a step closer to making Facebook the default communication platform for all computer phone users, merging SMS with Facebook chat, and making Facebook the default interface through which all other apps and experiences are used. The accompanying benefit is it makes Facebook the primary authority for social behavior that's translated into computer data, and since its the data that Facebook makes money on, all impediments to a person sending new data into their servers should be removed.
The idea that there is a natural world and a virtual world is sometimes criticized under the banner of digital dualism, a fear that experiences mediated by computers are somehow unnatural or untrue. Yet, there is a very literal dual-aspect to much of our experience with technology, something revealed in the distinction between the coded language computers use to communicate with one another, and the standards of translation that take those binary, coded packets of information into big usable "share" buttons that are false digital fronts for a code few people know or understand. If this is not quite enough to qualify as a duality of nature itself, it should at least justify a dual view of the language computers use to communicate with one another and their users. And there is a very real discrepancy in the values of computer-to-computer communication and computer-to-human communication. With services like Facebook, the currency is not primarily designed for people, but the process of transforming inputs from them into quantifiable data that can be used by advertisers and sponsors.
It's also worth noting that all of the services Home will offer are already possible on most smartphones, which contain photo-sharing functionality, chat features, video chat, and "friends" lists. Home reorganizes these features under Facebook's slightly less fragmentary interface, a marginal exchange of convenience for the opportunity to extract more and more personal data points for Facebook's benefit. Creating a data log of our thoughts, experiences, and relationships captures the least important part of our lives, and Facebook has created a company built around an interpretative code that makes those ephemeral bits maximally profitable.
"We’d built a really nice business that scaled to billions of dollars on the desktop with ads only on the side of the page," Zuckerberg explained to Levy. "But it was really a cop-out, because we weren’t tackling the hard problem of figuring out how to actually make the ads good enough to integrate with the user experience." Home is a major part of the solution to this problem, a merging of the commercial and social, of data point with intimacy, an interface that speaks to you in one language and its servers in another. Whether it works or not, it's becoming increasingly clear that the values behinds most of Facebook's decisions are not just people, but making people profitable, and the more obvious that idea becomes, the more repulsive it seems.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.