Facebook is suffering from an overdose of dog food

The company's staff are so ingrained with the network that they can't make products normal people want to use.

"Eat your own dog food", goes the (rather unpalatable) mantra in Silicon Valley. The argument goes that, without your employees using your own products, how can you know for sure that they are something which your customers would want to use? Take, for example, the fact that Google's Eric Schmidt uses a Blackberry instead of an Android smartphone. How can anyone expect the company to have the kind of top-down commitment to greatness which is so often credited with making Steve Jobs years at Apple so successful, if its own executive chairman thinks another company makes better products? And failing to eat your own dog food is also a symptom, as well as a cause, of decline: consider what the difficulties Microsoft had in dealing with the incursion of iPods rather than Zunes into their employee's pockets said about the eventual victor of the MP3 wars.

But Facebook is in the unusual position of having the opposite problem: its employees use the site too much and too well. In eating their own dog food (and nothing but their own dog food), they end up completely unable to imagine how their typical users interact with the site.

Facebook's site can, if you let it, completely manage your life. You can make an event for everything you do, from work meetings to dinner dates; you can use its messaging client like email, right down to being able to take incoming mail to your @facebook.com address; you can use chat, status updates and photo posting to the exclusion of all else (so long Twitter, Gchat and Instagram); you can check in to your favourite restaurants, follow celebrities and even run a business from your page.

A lot of people use a lot of these functions – but how many outside of Facebook's campus use all of them? And how does that affect the products they make?

Take Facebook Home, a total conversion for your Android smartphone into a Facebook machine. It squeezes all of Facebook's services into your phone's homescreen - whether you like them all or not. Use Facebook just for photos and organising the occasional night out? The chat integration will not be particularly useful for your. What is you prefer to tweet good things you've read rather than post them to your wall? You'll have to change the default settings, then.

But the product which really couldn't exist without an overdose of dog food is Facebook Graph Search. That's a product whose advertised use-case relies on users "liking" their dentist. That might be normal behaviour for the people who Mark Zuckerberg hangs out with, but for most, it's just a bit on the odd side.

The reason why graph search in particular is such a flop is simple: the behaviour it encourages to use it is not the same behaviour it takes to make it work. If you want to get the most out of graph search, you don't have to post a single thing on Facebook – but your friends do. That means that simply launching Graph Search onto the world isn't enough to populate it with useful data, and so it's currently best for finding out awkward facts that people might not have meant to make public

Ultimately, Facebook's major engineering problem for the next phase of its life isn't about trying to make it easier and more fun for people to get information out of the site; it's about trying to encourage them to put it in. But that's a problem that they can't tackle with a company full of employees who are only too happy to live their lives on the social network without any encouragement.

Dog food is an important part of a company's diet – but eat too much of it, and you'll get sick.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.