Tuned Out or "Connecting"? Ideal Users in Facebook Home Ads

In the Spring of 2013, Facebook announced a new piece of software designed to allow Facebook users with Android phones to transform their dull home and lock screens into spaces to view continuously updated Facebook content. This way, instead of having to dig through all your applications to launch Facebook, and then scroll through your friends’ latest pictures, you can “like” a friend’s update about their delicious lunch, or comment on the picture she posted of her salad directly from the lock screen.

While the software got mixed reviews, the T.V. ads that Facebook rolled out to accompany the launch were critiqued for normalizing the egocentric pursuit of self over and above our (often boring) responsibilities to others.  I have mixed feelings about the way these commercials depict the character of the users, but find the commercials impossible to stop thinking about.

Advertising is a form of explicitly available cultural “script” that illustrates a nexus where the meanings a company hopes to associate with a product meet the ideas and feelings potential consumers may already have about the product and where it may fit into their lives. In order to sell new technologies, companies usually attempt to make sense of them for consumers in a way that appeals to consumers’  existing ideas about technology, relationships, and themselves. To do so, advertisers often position their new devices in relation to consumers’ existing meaning systems (Pfaffenberger).

For these reasons, the Facebook Home ads provide an interesting place to explore the “ideal users” imagined by Facebook. The characteristics shared by the users in these ads are that they are young and bored by their current surroundings. The rest of what we learn about these users is gleaned from the content they peruse while using the advertised software. A young Facebook employee zones out on Mark Zuckerberg’s congratulatory announcement by looking at pictures of a competitive lawn-mower race that come to life and zing through the desks in the office where he’s sitting listening to his overly-earnest boss. A young woman bored by her Aunt’s uninteresting story at a family dinner passes the time by looking at pictures of ballerinas, who then dance their way across the dinner table. These young, bored people are defined (in the eyes of the viewers) by the content they consume as it scrolls by on the screens of their phones. The Facebook employee is quirky and irreverent, the woman is cultured and artistic. Their personalities are known (in the words of Nick Hornby) not by what they are like, but what they like.

These users are also depicted as being able to transcend the banal doldrums of everyday life and connect to the things that “really” interest them at the touch of a button. Even though their bodies may be confined to a particular physical space, they are free to direct their attention in ways that really interest them and Facebook Home is allowing them to do so faster then they ever did before. Evan Selinger wrote a thought-provoking (but perhaps slightly alarmist) piece for Wired addressing many of these issues. He argues that our “ethical effort in maintaining meaningful connections” with others is undermined by the ideology of the freely-choosing, obligation-free individual illustrated by the users in these ads, and that this kind of selfishness is spreading. While I mostly agree with his argument, I still think these ads are interesting from an empirical (if not ethical) perspective.

The empirical questions these commercials provoke are even more interesting when compared to the tone of the official video Facebook produced to introduce the software. This spot shows users in moments where they’re not participating in ongoing social interactions with co-present others (a break from work, riding a train, snuggling with a sleeping partner). In this video, they show their ideal user not as the physically-constrained-but-freely-choosing agent shown in the TV spots, but as socially engaged with those around them or having “a free moment” by themselves. In this video, the technology doesn’t bring the images on the users phone into their current physical surroundings, in fact, the user’s use of the device doesn’t cause any disruption whatsoever to the flow of events around them. It’s hard to imagine anyone writing a scathing critique of the software featured in this vision of the software!

By comparing these two depictions of users of the Facebook Home software, it’s apparent that the images of users we see in commercials matter to the ways we understand these devices and their place in our lives. The television spots were certainly intended to be slightly humorous tongue-in-cheek references to the changing social norms surrounding mobile use in different social settings, and the Facebook video is a more earnest attempt that plays off of our fond feelings for our friends and family. But, looking at these two ads together makes me think about the ways that some depictions of technology make critique more possible, while others make it more difficult to see any possible downsides of the product being advertised.  Does the style of advertising really affect the ways we receive new technologies? What do you think?