If you’re on the internet and attending to content, you probably know that earlier this fall, Facebook launched several major changes in the way it collects, organizes, and displays user-generated content. Facebook’s content strategists work on the large scale: 800 million users; more than 900 million pages, groups, events, and community pages; 250 million new photos uploaded every day. Earlier this month, Tiffani Jones Brown gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the growing Facebook CS team, how they work, and how the company thinks about content.
Can you give us a quick sketch of content strategy at Facebook?
Right now we’re five strong: our manager Alicia Dougherty-Wold, Sarah Marx Cancilla, Evany Thomas, Amy Thibodeau, and me. We’re part of the design/UEX org, along with product design, communication design, research, and user interface engineers.
As far as how we work, we split our energy between site-wide content strategy initiatives that we work on together, and being embedded within individual product teams. We each work in a couple of different areas, which break down into a handful of features (like timeline, photos or music), and we’re very in-the-trenches with our teams as things develop toward launch.
At Facebook teams operate a bit like startups—they’re scrappy and have lots of autonomy over what they’re making—so a big part of our job is to bring a cohesive voice, tone, and content standards to our respective teams. We help keep things consistent and on-brand.
And within the team, what’s your role?
I’ve worked on a handful of features: news feed, music, subscribe, events, the iPad app, and a few others. I also help with our outreach, on getting out into the community to learn from lovely folks like the Contents team.
The way we’re assigned to projects really depends on our interests and talents, but we all do a bit of everything: writing UI copy, editorial, content planning, clarifying content goals, generating themes and messaging, naming and positioning features, etc. We’re always on the lookout for generalists who are great at both strategy and execution. As we grow, we may look to hire more specialists.
As for my role, I really like the “ethnographic” piece of the work—working with researchers and figuring out who we’re building for, why, and how to do it right. Beyond that, I’m pretty focused on editorial strategy, on getting the words and tone right.
How did you come to join the Facebook content strategy team?
We’d been busy at Things That Are Brown, working on projects for Microsoft, the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and Dave Eggers’ non-profit 826 Seattle, when Facebook approached us about coming on full-time, and relocating from Seattle down to Palo Alto.
We knew great things were happening at Facebook, so we flew out to meet the design and content strategy teams. We’d talked before about wanting to work on a product, and I felt like I’d stumbled onto dream team island, where everyone was kind and bright and talented. By the time we headed back to Seattle, the idea of working at Facebook felt like an adventure.
Making the move was a tough choice since we felt we were just getting going with Things That Are Brown. After some soul searching, though, we decided this was exactly the kind of adventure and challenge we wanted. I’m eight months in, and it was absolutely the right choice—we’re still feeling the glow.
When I mention content strategy in the context of Facebook, a lot of people (outside the CS world) look at me like I’ve grown an extra head, because they’re not thinking of Facebook’s social sharing and user-generated content as a content strategy problem. Is there a sense, within Facebook, that the whole product is essentially concerned with content/publishing?
Yes. The things people share and the information our system produces to describe those things (both called stories) are central to Facebook’s social design, and have become even more so as the content strategy team has grown. Planning, creating, and maintaining these stories is a big part of our job.
For example, whenever we create a new feature like music, we spend a lot of time perfecting the stories that are produced when you use it. We have to ask ourselves things like this: When someone opts into our music product and listens to a song, do we publish a story about it? If so, what kind? And how is the story written? Is it “Tiffani Jones Brown listened to an album?” “Tiffani Jones Brown listened to Bjork on Rdio?” “Tiffani Jones Brown listened to Vespertine by Bjork on Rdio?” Which of those pieces of data are linked? Where do those links go? Where does this story appear? What happens when someone likes the story? Can they comment on it? Can they share it? Do I get notified about that? If I’m listening on Rdio and my friend doesn’t have Rdio, how can they listen, too?
We also have to make sure the stories for a particular feature knit together with stories from all the other features and apps on Facebook. Does this story make sense next to others in the news feed? Is it consistent with others across the site? Does it “feel” like Facebook when you get this story?
These are all content strategy questions about framing and dealing with user-generated content. The range of these questions is immense, and at the heart of what Facebook does.
What were (or are) the major content strategy or content-related challenges of the new Facebook timeline?
Evany was the content strategist on switching from profile to timeline, so I talked to her about some of the content challenges around this.
With the switch to timeline, we wanted to give people an easy way to capture the big events in their lives. While the standard status update is a handy way to capture stuff you’re doing and thinking about today, it isn’t a great tool for filling out stuff you did before you joined Facebook. This is where life events for timeline came in.
We needed to work closely with research to identify what types of events people think of as major life events, and to figure out the best way to refer to them. The challenge was to find names for each event that were broad enough to apply to a wide variety of situations, but not so broad that they didn’t resonate. For example, “Had a Baby” excluded people who adopt, whereas the more inclusive “New Family Member” didn’t match how people think about the arrival of a child. (In testing, people would breeze past “New Family Member” and instead select “Other” and enter “Had a Baby” by hand.)
With timeline there was also the problem of changing 5000 instances of the word “profile” to “timeline” across Facebook. My team sat down with a giant content audit over cupcakes to take care of this. We individually reviewed instances of “profile” for context, then made recommendations about what needed to change.
Where did the “cover” image decision on the new timeline come from? Was that a design decision, a content recommendation, or both? Or neither?
Timeline was definitely a collaboration across teams—Product Design, Research, Communication Design, and Evany from our team were all deeply involved.
As far as the strategy behind the cover image, we know that before timeline, many people were using the five thumbnail images at the top of their profile as a sort of stand-in cover photo. There was already customization and curation going on there, and we were seeing signs that people wanted more control over how their profile looked and what images showed up there.
The new wide, open space where your cover photo goes was a way to address this desire.
There’s been a lot of discussion of the shift from nouns to verbs in the new Facebook. It looks like a beast, from a content strategy perspective—a lot of potential complexity to deal with. Do you have, like, a verb working group?
One of the big goals of the past months has been to give people the option of telling more personal stories about their lives. Publishing more complex stories—with verbs besides “like”—is part of this.
For example, now you might see more stories published by apps your friends are using. Things like, “Ben is listening to the White Stripes on Spotify” or “Jenny is running in Golden Gate park on Nike +.”
If you think of all the apps out there, and all the potential actions you might be taking on those apps, you have a lot of verbs—and a huge content strategy problem. What verbs do we allow? Do we use a simple subject-verb-object construction, or something more complicated? Can developers decide what verbs are associated with their apps, or do we decide this? What kinds of tools do developers need to be able to input this information?
When this project first got started, I worked with a team of engineers to think through the new verbs we might expect from a project like this. We wrote them all down, then mapped out possible configurations of the sentences that might evolve from those verbs. It was a huge spreadsheet. We have people from across the company working on this. It’s an ongoing project.
Does the increasing integration of Facebook into the rest of the web (Facebook comments on other websites, Facebook login functionality on a growing number of services) affect your work or decisions?
Yes. With the Facebook platform, we need to think about content not just in the context of Facebook, but throughout the web as a whole. We think about how apps publish to Facebook, how Facebook content behaves as it is shared across websites and how a plugin will be worded and behave, for example.
Facebook has become the guardian of very large quantities of information shared by people with widely varying degrees of technical sophistication. How does that fact shape your work—and how does the weight of those issues affects your own subjective experience as a content strategist at Facebook?
The effects of what my team does—whether it’s changing the name of a security setting or working on a privacy-related interaction—are massive and far-reaching, and we’re mindful of the responsibility that comes with that. These things lend extra complexity to our work.
I think of this extra complexity as a design challenge. So now, in addition to my user experience and content strategy checklists, I need to work through legal and security checklists too. I try to build this extra work into my process, making sure I talk to the right experts, vet my choices with research, and that I have the context I need before making a recommendation.
I like that my work can have direct impact on people’s lives and make Facebook easier to use and understand.
Do you worry about Facebook’s more vulnerable users? Those who may lack the web savvy or basic assumptions about interfaces and social sharing that allow more technically proficient users to make fine-grained choices about things like sharing information with apps, or with other users?
Our job is to be the voice for all our users, so we have to take the differences that 800 million people bring to our site into account in our work. These differences include accessibility and capabilities, as well as technical divides across cultures, varying levels of literacy and vastly different expectations about what Facebook is and should be.
Our content standards have to democratically address these differences, to make sure we’re solving not just for a few people, but for vulnerable users, people across continents, and everyone in between.
How do you get feedback on things that are or aren’t working? I’m imagining a retrofuturistic, white-plastic 1960s-NASA-style control room full of people crunching analytics and extrapolating user behaviors. That’s totally what it’s like, right?
Facebook is a feedback platform—one of the largest in the world—so we have a huge opportunity to see how people respond to the things we make. We get a ton of feedback from all sorts of channels: in comments people make on the site, in the data, in usability studies, qualitative research, from people we know, etc. All this feedback informs the work we do. We’re constantly testing and iterating based on it.
And yes, I’ve seen UEX’s control room. It’s bright and bustly.
What’s it like to wrangle the more traditionally editorial voice/tone stuff for the interface and instructional copy on a site of this size? How does your team handle that?
Right now Sarah is leading our team in building out our Content Standards, a sort of style guide on steroids. It outlines standards for all the content on Facebook: principles that inform what we write, our approach to voice and tone, as well as specific guidelines for error messages, UI copy, grammar conventions, user education, ads, forms, marketing pages, the works.
Even though Facebook is big, following solid content strategy principles and relying on our standards helps us wrangle the voice and tone. In addition to the standards, we do a lot of evangelizing, collaborative tinkering, and just working closely with our product teams to get the voice and tone right.
What are some of the tough calls you’ve made on the voice/tone side?
One of our core content principles is to “put people’s voices first.” That means we need to be neutral with our tone, and to avoid value-laden, charged, or overly cute language. Our content shouldn’t get in the way of what people are trying to do on Facebook.
At the same time, we have to balance “getting out of the way” with other content principles like being friendly and clear. We have to be sure that neutrality doesn’t trend toward a robotic voice of the machine.
Here’s an example of this tension: if you like a page or add a friend but then change your mind, you need a way to undo that action. This interaction can be potentially awkward and somewhat charged, though, so we need to find a process and words that meet our principles for being clear and direct, but which don’t sound scary (“Delete Friend”), severe (“Remove Friend”), or robotic (“Remove Page From Liked Pages”). That’s how we landed on Unfriend and Unlike.
Does your team work on voice/tone things outside of interface copy?
We’re the voice for all the content within and without the interface. We create positioning and narratives around features, for example. And we lead the content strategy for launch pages, product tours, and other brand-centric initiatives like the Safety Center. We also consult widely with other teams that write—guiding the voice and tone for support content, giving input on press releases, editing blog posts, etc. We’re a kind of hub for everything content-related at Facebook.
What keeps you awake at night?
When it comes to work, I fuss a lot over making Facebook easy to use and understand, and keeping us all sounding like humans. I care a lot about that.
I also stay awake thinking of other things I want to do. Like live in Morocco for a while, or own a Tennessee Walker.
What are you most excited about?
I like people. I’m pretty excited about people. I also get jazzed about writing. I recently took a personal essay course at the SF Writer’s Grotto, and I’ve got an article coming up in The Manual this spring. The reading and writing scene in San Francisco is really lively, so I spend a lot of my weekend time on that.