If Women Had Designed Facebook

by cv harquail on September 30, 2010

If women had designed Facebook, maybe it wouldn’t feel …

So cold.
So rectangular.
So static.

So emotion-less.
So linear.

So blue.
So hierarchical.
So rigid.

So ego-centric.
So boring.

If women had designed Facebook, maybe it would be:

Warmer.
More welcoming.

3206288452_437a150b01_o.jpg

Flexible.

Expressive.
Inclusive
.
Emotional.

Aesthetically inviting.
Personalizable.
Collaborative.
Dynamic.

Intimate.
Engaging.
Flow-y.

Maybe there would even be some music.

Reflecting on Facebook’s underlying values

Have you ever thought about why Facebook doesn’t quite do it for you? How, as a platform, a structure, and procedure for “connecting”, it doesn’t quite create for you the feeling of being ‘with’ your friends, psychically and emotionally?

As a person who seldom, if ever, gives a ‘thumbs up’   when a virtual hug is what’s needed, I often wonder what’s missing from Facebook.

Design reflects values.

Everything ever designed reflects the worldview, the values, and the priorities of the people who designed it. Technology, and software in particular, reflects the implicit values of the people who design it. If designers value speed over warmth, economy over richness, or squares over circles, the software reflects these values.

Design recreates values.

Software also recreates in our social world the values its designers put into it, because the design of the software shapes and constrains the ways that we use it.

Facebook was designed for a particular purpose. If you are to believe the spirit ( if not the true story) behind the founding of Facebook, as shown in the The Social Network, Facebook was designed to replicate online the social experience of some socially maladroit male geeks.

So, we should be concerned about how the implicit values, social arrangements, and social solutions that are literally built into the Facebook software itself continue to influence how we interact across that platform.

It’s not just a question of design space that isn’t explored, although that’s part of my concern.

More,  I’m wondering how online social interaction might be different, and in so many ways better, if social media platforms we commonly use were intentionally designed to reflect feminist, collective, liberatory, inclusive, socially-justice oriented, values.

Imagine a feminist Facebook. An “Alt-Facebook”.

201009301156.jpg

If we had software designed to reflect a different set of values, ‘Alt- Facebook ‘ might be:

– Less Spock and more Kirk.
– Less like Powerpoint and more like “UnPresenting“.
– Less about “me” and more about “Us”.

I don’t have a full picture of what a social networking site that reflected a different world view might look like. I need some help imagining what it could be.

What kind of online community would we create for ourselves, if we started with a different set of values?


Stay tuned: Monday’s post addresses Design by Feminists vs. Designing for Women: Politics vs Marketing.

Be Sure To Read this terrific analysis/review of The Social Network by Melissa Silver at Women and Hollywood !!

See Also:
Facebook for Women vs. Facebook Designed by Feminists: Different vs. Revolutionary

The Feminist Business Bloggers’ Lament
When will Social Business become Social Change business?

Interwoven 28 image, Attribution Some rights reserved by gurdonark

{ 21 comments }

jon September 30, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Great article — and thanks for the link!

There’s some related thoughts on GeekFeminism in a thread about what a feminist- and womanist-oriented social network would look like.

cv harquail September 30, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Hi Jon,

Thanks so much for commenting — I really appreciate the support your blog is giving to the big picture concerns about #womenwhotech.

When I was researching this issue before I wrote this post, I noted this convo (and a few others) … it’s interesting that the predominant (feminist) concerns about Facebook have to do with privacy/safety and identity fluidity/construction (e.g., crafting the kind of gender identity you want for yourself, beyond the binary). I think these are important– and of course they wouldn’t be issues if Facebook had different values and defaults!

The issues are larger, too — and I wish more people outside of the TechFeminism experts knew more about it….so I’m on a mission to distill the concerns…. any help would be appreciated ;-) cv

Jon Garfunkel September 30, 2010 at 6:21 pm

And how does your theory jive with the data…?

“According to BrianSolis.com and Google Ad Planner, the 400-million member site is 57% female and attracts 46 million more female visitors than male visitors per month. Plus, women are more active on Facebook. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says women on Facebook have 8% more friends and participate in 62% of the sharing. ‘The social world is led by women,’ she concludes. And they’re leading that charge online.”
http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/26/popular-social-networking-sites-forbes-woman-time-facebook-twitter_print.html

cv harquail September 30, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Hi Jon G.-

The question I’m raising is not whether women use Facebook, but whether Facebook would look, work and feel differently if it had been built to reflect a different value set.

There have been some online sites (especially earlier on) that were built with feminist principles in mind, and Cindy Gallup’s site IfWeRanTheWorld offers a contemporary example of a software platform that is pretty different in appearance and functionality from your average online activity/application.

Women’s activity on Facebook, especially relative to men, suggests simply that women like being able to do what Facebook allows them to. We all know that Fb has no significantly different competitor (if you think it has any competitors at all). It is the only game in town, and dominates not because it is “better” but because it is bigger.

If there were some other social site that offered connections with many groups of people, and sharing across a network, etc., but did it in a qualitatively different way, then we could consider whether women prefered Fb to some other, different option.

I’m not sure whether you are suggesting that ‘if women use FB, they must not feel like anything’s missing from a women’s point of view”. I wouldn’t expect that argument from you, b/c you are already interested in software structure and diversity …. so you know that this wouldn’t be a clever line of argument, nor a persuasive one. But, I do appreciate you tossing in what would be the most common comeback. ;-)

I have, of course, intentionally conflated ‘women’s values’ with ‘feminist values’ to simplify the ideas. There is some important, empirically verified overlap between values defined as ‘feminist’ and values that a majority of women state that they prefer. That said, ‘designing software/games/apps so girls like them’ and designing from a feminist perspective are very different challenges.

I, and every other consumer, uses what’s available, not necessarily what we like the best or what we’d design if anyone asked us what we wanted. Facebook is a minimally viable social network site — but not one that is making the world a more just place on purpose. I use it because it’s there and it’s better than nothing, not because I like how it’s designed and how it represents relationships among people.

How about you? If you think about how you’d really like to stay connected with friends, does Fb cover all of that in a way you like? From your vantage point as a designer, how do you work with implicit or explicit values as you design?

Thanks for joining the conversation…any ‘friend’ fanned by Elisa C. is someone to welcome.

Readers, check out Jon’s article on Oppressiveness by Software….

maren October 1, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I’m wondering why women haven’t jumped on the social platform wagon? (And having said that, maybe they have and I’m just unaware of it.) Sure there are enough women out there with enough knowledge to create something like this.

It seems like a community waiting to happen….

Jon Garfunkel October 1, 2010 at 2:17 pm

CV,

Thanks for reading some of my work. Indeed I agree with the importance of values-based design. But I find it necessary to take a look at the data first to see if the hypothesis is worth pursuing.

Facebook is not the only social network; just the biggest.

There’s a lot of research in this area comparing different social networks:
http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6156.html
http://gigaom.com/2010/03/04/who-uses-social-media-more-men-or-women/

By the numbers, MySpace is much more feminine than Facebook, as Digg is much more masculine. It may well be that 55% female usage is close to the optimum number to hit.

Happy to have a longer discussion on this, but perhaps another time.

Jon

jon October 2, 2010 at 11:30 am

thanks for the compliment, cv, and thanks also for kicking off the project of distilling the issues!

i too don’t really know what social network sites reflecting a different worldview will look like. part of the reason I’m so excited about If We Ran the World is that it’s clearly in a very different are of the design space than most other things out there. Dreamwidth is another example of a site reflecting different values (although it’s heavily based on the LiveJournal code and interaction metaphors), and on the Geek Feminism thread somebody mentioned Ravelry, which has some very interesting collaboration features. realistically i think we’re still at the exploration stage, and we’ll make progress by trying things out and iterating.

in terms of the underlying values, i think the Bill of Rights for social network users we developed at this year’s Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference is a good starting point. unlike almost all of the the previous attempts at bills of rights, it was developed by a fairly diverse group, and we had a public debate and discussion. Christina Gagnier’s putting together a session on this for SXSW next year, so we’ll continue to advance the idea.

totally agree that we need to broaden the discussions. it’s shocking how little awareness there is of a Gender HCI even several years after the IEEE Software article. true, most of the work to date has concentrated on end-user programming and debugging, but a lot of the findings appear generalizable. Feminist HCI is another useful lens — and hopefully womanist, mujerist, and other HCIs will evolve as well. a mujerist perspective for example might foreground multilingual issues, as Liza Sabater discussed during a different WWT panel. i’m not sure just what else would be revealed but that’s kind of the point :-)

in many ways, Facebook is typical of the overall software industry today: designed and implemented by guys who are convinced that all their users think like them. 37signals is another fine example of this, led by arrogant unsympathetic guys whose design process starts with looking at their own needs (1, 2, 3).

which means there are huge opportunities for people taking a different approach. During TechCrunch Disrupt, Tara Hunt noticed that people are talking about Facebook the way they talked about MySpace five years ago; it’s also very reminiscent of Microsoft in the 1990s. Diaspora, OneSocialWeb, and other alternatives are emerging to challenge Facebook’s hegemony. with luck, women will lead the design and implementation process for one or more of them. if not, well, there’s always room for more competitors. which leads to a variant on your question:

what will it look like when women design the next Facebook?

great conversation — looking forward to continuing it!

jon

Kristen October 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I read recently that Zuckerberg is red-green colo rblind which is one of the reasons FB is blue; it’s one of the few colors he can see with detail. ‘Nuff said.
http://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-is-blue-because-mark-zuckerberg-is-red-green-colorblind-more-herenbsp-2010-9

A. Guy October 2, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I love how some people’s definition of “feminism” is “Don’t stereotype me; Just sit there while I stereotype you.” Great insights into user interaction and site architecture. But I know many great (male) architects who might’ve done exactly what you described if they were given the task of designing FB’s UI. And I know many women who would be lost trying to do so (probably twirlling their blonde hair while shrugging “Gee, I dunno!” and giggling as they scrunch their nose to look cute and stupid – just like a girl. Right?

Asif Youssuff October 3, 2010 at 10:27 am

If you guys and gals come up with any concrete ideas in which a “woman” designed Facebook would work, I would love to get an email update (I entered a real email above this comment form). Hope you come up with something interesting!

cv harquail October 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Hi Asif-
Thanks for your interest, and stay tuned… Monday’s post is about Design by Feminists vs. Designing for Women: Politics vs Marketing. I’ll send it to you by email too. cv

Valentin October 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Software engineering is, and will probably always be, dominated by men. Facebook is first of all a piece of software. It has been designed by a team that is probably male in majority.
That does not mean women cannot be software engineers. They are no better nor worse. There are just less of them.
However, I am not sure that being a man or a woman changes the way a software engineer thinks. I am pretty sure that if you took only women to design it, it could be exactly the same. As it would have been still designed by software engineers.
The success of a social network is deeply rooted in the “elegant” engineering. If you are not a software engineer, you will probably not appreciate its elegance.
It is like when you cross a bridge. What you care about is to be able to cross it, and that it does not fall. But you probably do not appreciate its technical elegance if you are not a civil engineer.
You would probably think it is cool to be able to paint a portion of a steel bridge. But the engineer would be concerned if people used non anti-corrosive paints. As a result, he would probably forbid you to paint it.
You probably want to be able to change the color of your profile on Facebook. Maybe the engineers at Facebook are concerned by your color-blind friends who cannot differentiate the foreground color to the background color of your profile more than you are. Or maybe, that your profile is not accessible on a mobile phone.
And yes, if you are a male geek, bigger is the chance for you to be a software engineer and understand the philosophy of the design of Facebook. But I do not think that is just made for male geeks, like bridges are not only for civil engineers.
Yes, as a result it is cold. But this sobriety and simplicity comes from the fact it is made by software engineers. That does not matter if they are male or female. It does not reflect the personalities of the engineers, but rather technicalities of web development, portability, ergonomics and feasibility. And being blue-neutral and emotionless is what probably the common ground where users can meet. You would not design it as pink with flowers. As a male geek who is also software engineer, I would actually like it. I like flowers. But lots of user would not. It would deter them from registering. Specially males who are insecure about their “masculinity”. And I can tell you that those are not geeks. Facebook is a business and cannot afford to lose users.
One thing you could ask Facebook to do, and which is technically possible: to be able to rename “like” by “hug”, and change *YOUR* background color. Yes. But only for you. None of your friends should see it. And frankly, there would be not much point in it.
For the “about us”, I am sorry, you can do this in Facebook. There are groups and pages.

Tom Herrnstein October 5, 2010 at 10:51 am

I agree with your analysis that every thing designed reflects values, priorities, and a worldview; and when it comes to Facebook, I suggest that its values and priorities reflect its concern with what the masses will use. Your complaint about Facebook, that it lacks a richly human aspect and limits its users in the same way, seems right to me. And your point that the lack of these qualities (aesthetic, inclusiveness, and so on) is reflective of male qualities also seems right to me.

What I find interesting about the Facebook creation story is the other social networking models it beat out. While it is true that Facebook was savvy in its management – not expanding too fast, yet being very aggressive when expanding (e.g., surrounding schools that initially picked another social networking site to force them to switch to Facebook) – it is speculated by some that the appeal of Facebook compared to other models was its simplicity. It wasn’t personalizable, flashy, or dynamic like Myspace, Connect U, or Campus Network. In a word, the masses took to it because it wasn’t too complicated. After thinking about these points a question about male versus female created things and institutions came to mind.

Your argument is that certain feminine characteristics would improve Facebook – would those same characteristics cause it less likely to succeed? Could being complicated be a characterization of other things created by women, and if so, does this create an inherent disadvantage for such things? (By “complicated” I of course do not mean something like a degrading “women are inscrutable” or anything like that, I just mean more complex to handle by intellect or understanding.) So the question is this: even if some things women create are better in some way, do they often have the disadvantage of being more difficult to use or grasp and thus more likely to be disregarded in favor of simpler approaches?

jon October 5, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Belated response to maren, who wondered whether women have jumped on the social platform wagon. Dreamwidth, Caterina Fake with Flickr (and now Hunch), Gina Bianchi with Ning, Mary Hodder with Dabble, Rashmi Sinha with Slideshare, and going back further Lilli Cheng’s and Linda Stone’s various Microsoft Research projects are some examples that leap to mind. None of these fill the same niches as LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter and Facebook of course but they have all been successful. It’s interesting to think about where they are in terms of cv’s discussion.

Kristen, agreed; Anil Dash mentioned this in <a href="http://dashes.com/anil/2010/09/the-facebook-reckoning-1.html&quot;The Facebook Reckoning.

Valentin comments that “Facebook is a business and cannot afford to lose users.” They don’t mind ignoring multi-million person protest groups about UI changes or outraging mothers by banning breast-feeding pics so I am not sure why insecure guys should get special treatment.

Good questions, Tom. The way I look at it there are multiple paths to success and as well as looking at the circumstances for Facebook’s success it’s valuable to think about it in terms of what’s next. With today’s market dynamics, what characteristics are most likely to lead to success for the next Facebook?

Cynthia Kurtz October 5, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Hello CV, I enjoyed your post about Facebook and agree with your points. We are thinking alike! I tried Facebook last year and wrote about how its design doesn’t fit my real social life and personality well enough to be useful to me. I also wrote a recent post about Facebook and social activism in response to Malcolm Gladwell’s article on Facebook in the New Yorker. Happy to connect if you want to talk about these things!

I’m a woman, and I research and design and build software, and some of it supports social networking and social activism (see especially my Rakontu project). And I’ve been working with my husband on software projects for decades so I’ve seen both sides. Some aspects of software engineering will always be dominated by men. But those aspects are a small fraction of the total, and they are complemented by an equally critical set of aspects that women bring to the table in disproportion. Building excellent software requires many complementary skills, and the synergy created by diversity is empowering – when you can get it. I agree that software designed by women (or by women and men working together) comes out different than software designed only by men. I have seen much evidence for this in my own work as well as the work of others. However, from what I’ve seen, gender is just the tip of the iceberg.

The problem we face as a society is that the diversity of the software we use doesn’t match the diversity of those using it. Facebook’s designers were not only predominantly male but also for the most part young, relatively privileged, white, and from a very limited set of cultural backgrounds. Have you seen the recent writing on how the exclusive use of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) research subjects has biased sociological and psychological research findings? I’d say the same bias appears in software design. What if the next Facebook were designed not just by women, but by men and women, and by people from every continent, from every socioeconomic class, from every ethnic background, from every religion, from city and country, from the shy to the outgoing, from every orientation and identification, from every personality group …. What would that Facebook be like?

The elephant in the room here is power and money. A lot of the people out of power do write software; they just are less likely to have the means to get that software well funded. There are many Facebook alternatives out there, as one of your commenters mentioned; but many of those people can’t get funding to bring their diverse abilities and skills to the world stage. If history is written by the victors, software is written by (and funded by) the powerful. That’s the main reason it doesn’t match its users and their real worlds (not that men design software better, which is a red herring). The mismatch between diversity of tools and diversity of people is hardly a new problem – it stretches back through history – but that doesn’t mean we can’t address it.

One more point: Just because people use something, that doesn’t mean it works for them! Have you tried buying a toaster in the past decade? One that doesn’t catch on fire and works for longer than a year? Just because people keep buying or using things doesn’t mean they love them. I know lots of people who are leaving Facebook because its inadequacies are piling up. We as a society can do better, but the question is, will we?

Kales October 11, 2010 at 3:47 am

If women had designed facebook, they would have designed facebook.

Hannah October 13, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Dear CV,

I super appreciate your article and the follow-up piece. I was kind of depressed to see the response when it was posted on the Diaspora discussion boards:

http://groups.google.com/group/diaspora-discuss/browse_thread/thread/fe469e5aef3c1f9d

This kind of confirmed my feeling, as a woman who works in tech, that a social network designed by feminists is fundamentally impossible while the tech field is so saturated in sexism.

cv harquail October 14, 2010 at 9:14 am

Hi Hannah-

Thanks for your comment… it is tiring to hear the same (unenlightened, sometimes ignorant) things over and over. I was just chuckling over a comment guideline on another site that suggested that, if commenters make arguments about gender difference, that they base them on studies performed after 1972, not before.

What surprised me about the convo on the diaspora board was that it focused only on appearance, on cosmetics rather than functionality. The issue isn’t whether it’s pink or blue, but more whether it’s fluid or hierarchical.

Some people can’t seem to get beyond very superficial reactions. For example, above and at the Diaspora convo someone commented on Zuckerberg’s colorblindness, as tho that is the Q. E. D. of the conversation about appearance. Here’s where I take it though: It is blue because of one fellow’s needs. Nobody extrapolated beyond that particular individual to consider whether there was a community who might have similar needs. If Zuckerberg/Fb designers cared about making Facebook accessible and usable to *other* people with vision challenges, they would have done this. But they are still being challenged by accessibility activists. There’s self-centered design, and user-friendly design. The color choice (supposedly) reflects the former approach.

Also, before anyone rails about blue being America’s favorite color for both men and women– yes, it is. And, women and men prefer different shades of blue. I’m not going to tell you which preference Fb blue is like…. you can guess.

cv

jon October 15, 2010 at 11:12 am

Hannah: depressing indeed. I just posted about this in What a maroon. However I’m more optimistic than you about the possibilities for a social network designed by feminists (and womanists and mujerists). You can build something great with a small team — and while the overall climate is indeed incredibly sexist, it’s possible to create bubbles where the oppression is somewhat relaxed. So I see cv’s posts as the early steps in the process.

For more on Facebook’s all-blue UI and Zuckerberg’s color-blindness, see Anil Dash’s The Facebook Reckoning and my comment. I did a lot of experimenting with people’s reaction to color when I was at Microsoft and came away convinced that overwhelmingly-blue interfaces are so normalized that people don’t even stop to question them. At my startup Qworky, we intentionally went for color balance in our logo and default UI: two shades of blue, pink green. Guess what? Different people like different things.

In terms of the broader discussion on the Diaspora list, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s are a lot of user experience experts involved. Colors and customization are something that everybody thinks they understand so it’s easy for people to weigh in. But yeah, I was curious how the discussion would evolve, and thus far they’ve failed to impress. Oh well. They’re not the only game in town.

jon October 16, 2010 at 1:23 pm

more positively though, Raphael from Diaspora stepped in on the thread. very good to see.

outlier55 April 1, 2011 at 8:44 pm

I don’t even like Facebook, why would I try to design something like it…It’s too common, too out in the open, too “everyone’s doing it:” if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge, too?

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