Life As The Voice Of Facebook: How Its 'Content Strategists' Are Quietly Shaping Our Entire Digital Lives

When Facebook speaks to you, it’s Alicia Dougherty-Wold who’s talking.

Dougherty-Wold oversees Facebook’s content strategists, a team of exacting writers that includes a children’s book author, Fulbright scholar, former advice columnist, and a ghostwriter for the Travelocity gnome. Charged with naming and explaining the social network’s numerous features, Dougherty-Wold’s staff is the voice of Facebook, quietly shaping our digital lives with meticulous word choices that influence how Facebook’s 1 billion users share.

From titling new tools to finessing the micro-copy that instructs users how to tag this or upload that, Dougherty-Wold massages content in ways that “[set] the tone for the site” and “[help] you tell your story and feel comfortable sharing.” Before joining Facebook, Dougherty-Wold worked as a journalist and completed a master’s degree in clinical psychology.

While terms like “friend” and “like” (which was nearly “awesome” instead) predate Dougherty-Wold’s team, she’s helped name many of Facebook’s most iconic features. Timeline is Timeline thanks to Dougherty-Wold's staff. They considered names like “Unwrapped,” “Moments” and “Celebrations” before finally settling on “Facebook Gifts.” And Facebook’s standalone photo-sharing app, “Camera*,” was close to being called “Snap,” Filter” or “Lens.”

Dougherty-Wold’s motto: Simpler is better. And never miss an opportunity to find a better word.

“There are thousands of individual tiny tasks ..." Dougherty-World interrupts herself. “I shouldn’t say ‘tasks'. That’s a wonky term for it. ‘Activities’ that make up the use of Facebook.”

Dougherty-Wold spoke with HuffPostTech about life as a the voice of Facebook, why ellipses matter, and how Facebook sets the tone for its users.

How does Facebook talk? What’s Facebook’s tone? We try to speak with people who use Facebook the way you might speak with a neighbor, so we work on being friendly, being empathetic, and thinking about using language to build trust.

We try to talk like people, so we keep things really friendly and conversational. We use contractions, We try to avoid formal language.

How do you achieve that friendly, neighborly tone? We have defined content principles that focus on keeping language very simple and accessible in a concrete way. That means using short words and sentences, and making sure that our content is easy to read, translate and localize.

If you think about something like “What’s on your mind?” that prompt (which appears at the top of the News Feed) is forward, but there’s a contraction in there makes it feel a little more friendly. It’s a question -– it’s not a command to tell us “what’s on your mind.” It’s not robotic. It sounds like how people talk to each other.

How does the tone affect how people behave on Facebook? By taking a friendly, conversational tone, in a subtle way you’re setting the tone for anyone to connect with people they know. It makes it easier for someone to say, “I’ll say something here, I have something to share with my friends.” If Facebook is conversational, than I’ll feel comfortable sharing something, whether it’s simple or profound.

Most of the terms on Facebook are extremely very simple: “like,” “poke,” “friend,” “wall,” “gift.” A kindergartener would understand them. Why so elementary? We strive for these really simple words because they’re the most universal and they set the tone for the site. It’s the difference between sitting on a comfortable couch and a really stiff bench somewhere at a bus stop. It offers a little bit of softening around edges and sets the tone to make you want to stay.

Just by using more simple words, the site feels faster. Facebook encourages users to “Write a comment…” It’s not “Write a comment!” or even just “Write a comment.” The ellipses must be there for a reason. Why? If you look at the design of that comment box, it looks like a very small place to say something, but the ellipses give a subtle hint that you can add more than one line.

We might test something as subtle as the punctuation at end of that line to see which one helps people understand what they can do there. “Write a comment.” might make people more inclined to be terse. “Write a comment!” might sound too demanding. That’s a place where you could ask a question -- “Do you have a comment to share?” -- but we have to carefully weigh the load that puts on people to digest that sentence.

Last year, my Facebook “profile” became my Facebook “Timeline.” What other names did you consider for “Timeline,” which is such a core part of the Facebook user experience?

The one obvious question was: Do we keep calling this a 'profile'? And that, for a variety of reasons, seemed like it wouldn’t communicate enough that this was different. Sometimes you use language to help people understand what’s different and bring their attention to what’s new. If they have a model for how to interact with something and what’s new has changed, the language can help people understand the change and make use of it.

What things are you measuring when a user is testing out new language for a new tool? What do you look at to see if it’s effective? We are measuring how easy it is to complete task and how you feel when you engage with that content. Do you feel invited in? Or do you feel bossed around?

Ideally the language is pretty transparent so they [users] understand really quickly how to accomplish what they want to accomplish and feel good at the end. If we do usability testing in person, we actually get qualitative feedback from people. If they are stopping and reading the text out loud, if they’re asking questions about what it means, then we know we need to do more work. We also look quantitatively over time at what we might expect people to be able to do with a feature, and if there’s a new feature and people haven’t noticed it, we might use a dialogue or give you some small cue this new feature exists and then hopefully can use the content in a way to bring something valuable to your attention and make it something part of regular use of Facebook.

See the rest of our "Life As..." series here.

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