Tech

The Facebook Phone’s Biggest Problem

Nobody cares.

The first reviews of Facebook Home — the “Facebook Phone” — are in. As smartphone reviews go, they’re fine: The first device to launch with Facebook Home, the HTC First, is a nice piece of hardware with decent software, a low price and slightly worse-than-average camera. Few reviewers love it, few hate it, and most offer caveated recommendations. But all the reviews seem to have one thing in common:

These writers, who work for Gizmodo, Business Insider, and ABC, respectively, are noting that their traffic and comments for Facebook Home reviews are low. Not just low for a new, widely covered product launch. But low, period. “I think that was the lowest traffic review I’ve ever written or seen,” Biddle tells me.

This reflects a larger issue that Facebook doesn’t seem to have come to terms with: People can’t get excited about Facebook. Sure, people use it a lot, and many may find it valuable. But what people like about Facebook is the information that’s on it, not the service itself. If anything, the public sentiment with regard to Facebook — the data gatherer, the privacy-limit tester, the advertiser — is increasingly anxious. Facebook’s leadership interprets constant usage as an expression of love when it’s more likely an expression of need — ask an electric company, or a cable company, about other ways to understand engagement. You don’t see ConEd touting increases in electricity usage as evidence that people just adore ConEd.

(Zuckerberg is also fond of talking about how Facebook, and Facebook Home, is about a “return” to people. But a full return, by his definition, positions Facebook as an invisible unifying force. It also implicitly defines any point at which Facebook makes itself known to users — say, an advertisement — as an annoyance, or a glitch.)

A survey taken before the launch of Facebook Home suggested that almost nobody genuinely desired a “Facebook Phone.” But Facebook’s faintly Jobsian Home event suggested an opposite belief within the company: that people desire Facebook’s products in the same way that they desire, say, Apple’s or Samsung’s. Judging by the way Facebook talks about Facebook, it’s clear that the company feels like it’s giving its users something special with every new feature. Absent from this calculation is an understanding that Facebook users feel, as the company slowly cranks up its advertising dials, as though they are what’s being sold — that with every new feature or product, they’re not being given something, they’re being asked for something. (Today, coincidentally, is the day that a new Facebook ad targeting feature, which incorporates outside — and offline — purchasing data, begins to roll out.)

So, maybe that’s why people don’t seem to care about the Facebook Phone very much. Having already accepted Zuckerberg’s larger bargain, they don’t want to hear his pitch.

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