How Facebook Won the Attention Economy

There’s been much recent debate about Facebook and its growing influence. The controversy over fake news. Zuckerberg’s proposal to turn Facebook into “the largest democratic collective decision-making system in the world.”

Less has been written on how Facebook got so big. Building a social media empire isn’t easy. Just ask MySpace, Twitter and Vine.

Facebook today rules the “attention economy.” The average user spends nearly an hour on Facebook each day, more than any leisure activity other than TV & movies. Facebook’s apps generate nearly half of all iOS web traffic and a third on Android.

What lessons can we learn from Facebook’s success?

Make technology feel human

I got insight into Facebook’s product strategy last year when I visited their Menlo Park headquarters and spoke with company leaders.

Product managers emphasized the importance of human-centered design. Just as Steve Jobs famously designed the first Macintosh computer to resemble a human face, Facebook tries to come across as warm and inviting.

The News Feed is meant to feel like a reflection of you — posts from people you like, about things you’re interested in. Facebook collects a ton of personal data to provide a news feed that’s hyper-customized to our interests and values.

The more personalized the experience, the more we trust Facebook and want to spend time on it. All those hours translate into massive ad revenue.

Use the “Rage Shake”

Facebook’s auto-generated “Year in Review” had a shaky initial rollout. One person clicked the link and was shown a picture of his dead son. His outraged response went viral.

Product designers call this “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty.” One said, “Our nightmare is that we adjust a parameter, and it makes a Facebook user somewhere feel bad or unloved.”

Employees use a bug-reporting feature known as “Rage Shake”. If they see a problem in a new release, they violently shake their phone. It logs the app’s current state and sends details to Facebook’s engineering team.

One of Facebook’s product rules: the first story in News Feed can’t be an ad. Engineers once trolled Zuckerberg with a fake release showing all ads in his News Feed: “He was rage-shaking non-stop.”

Keep it simple

Early versions of Facebook suffered from being too complex. Users didn’t know which of their posts were showing up in their friends’ feeds. Advertisers saw Facebook as a confusing “black box.”

Facebook designers refer to the Hicks-Hyman law: the more options a user must choose between, the longer it takes them to respond.

A product manager told me, “Humans are Hertz machines in a gigahertz world”. We feel overwhelmed when a product offers too many features. Our technology is evolving faster than our brains — some have called it “a battle of Darwin vs. Moore.”

Designers have worked to make Facebook feel more simple and straightforward. Facebook chunked its product into distinct pieces — News Feed, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp.

Facebook designers adapted an Alfred Adler quote to express this philosophy: “Follow your heart, but take your brain and the people who use your product with you.”

Manage people’s emotions

Facebook uses a “tone framework” to guide product design. Products are designed to elicit specific emotional reactions — happiness for a birthday or anniversary, nostalgia in the year-end video “A Look Back”, or sympathy for a memorial page.

The company’s mantra used to be “Move Fast and Break Things.” Now it’s “Ship Love”.

Facebook’s emotion management techniques offer a case study in social and emotional regulation by design. The company’s financial success as an ad broker depends on its ability to shape people’s emotions and compete for attention.

Make users associate Facebook with positive vibes, and they get hooked and keep coming back for more.

Feed the FOMO

One emotion I didn’t hear anyone at Facebook mention: Fear. As in, fear of missing out, aka “FOMO”.

Designers make products addictive by tapping into our psychological vulnerabilities. If we don’t check News Feed constantly, we fear we may miss out on something amazing. We crave inclusion and social approval — we need to know our pics are getting enough likes.

It’s been called the “slot machine” effect. Intermittent variable rewards make us feel good and get us addicted — whether they’re casino payouts, or likes and comments.

Social apps hijack our brains much like a hypnotist manipulating our subconscious.

How did Facebook win the internet? By making the best mind-control tools and building trust on a massive scale.

Zuckerberg may not achieve his lofty ambitions of reshaping the world through Facebook groups. We’re not at the point where technology can solve all our problems and create paradise on earth.

But it’s undeniable that authority is shifting from humans to algorithms. When you think about it, reality is just a flow of data. And nobody controls that data better than Facebook.

Originally published at on February 28, 2017.