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.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.