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 Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.