Facebook is changing its colours amid website reboot blues
Social network tones down its looming presence amid 'pivot to privacy', but there is a sense that it is simply trying to hide
Blue was once the world’s most expensive colour. Not the dull blue of woad, which British barbarians smeared on their faces to frighten Romans with, but the true blue of ultramarine, a deep, pure shade whose name literally means “beyond the sea”.
For millennia, its only source was lapis lazuli found in the mountains of Afghanistan, which had to be carried elsewhere at great cost. Today, the proliferation of smartphones with LCD screens has made blue common, even humdrum. Now we’re even getting too much of it; scientists tell us to minimise blue light at bedtime, and many phones now come with a “sleep mode” that tints the screen orange. Even so, blue still has power.
Yet, on Tuesday Facebook announced, among other things, that it was dramatically cutting back the role of blue on its main service. It is abandoning the blue banner that has loomed for years over its website and mobile app, relinquishing the traditional hue of the Virgin Mary to its logo and some incidental page furniture. This change is part of a broader reboot of Facebook’s interface, which is itself part of a supposed “pivot to privacy”.
Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, says users want a private, intimate “living room”, as well as the company’s traditional “town square”. To serve that demand he is encrypting all its private messaging functions by default and changing its design to focus on groups, private or otherwise. In that context, sidelining blue sends the message that Facebook is no longer such a separate place from Instagram and WhatsApp.
But there is also something psychologically significant about blue in particular. At one time, blue was indisputably Silicon Valley’s favourite colour. The tech journalist Natasha Lomas put all her blue phone icons on one screen, and the effect was dramatic: Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Twitter, Google Earth and Skype all used it, as did numerous pre-installed iPhone apps such as Voice Memos, Weather, Safari and the App Store.
On iPhones, a blue bubble in the messaging app represents a text from another iPhone; a green bubble shows one from an outsider of the Android tribe.
That is not without reason. For one thing, blue is the colour of digital power. Hyperlinks, historically, have been bright blue, turning purple when you click them to denote that they are stale. In Western culture at least, blue specifically conveys feelings that tech companies might like to invoke. It is the colour of ice, the sky and the sea, both soothing and restrained, conveying cool reserve, calm and reliability. So, on the many flat television screens that pepper Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, California, the default screensaver is the map of the world in blue.
Blue also conveys a certain authority and professionalism, being the colour of the home team in US military exercises. If the world had a police force, its uniform would obviously be blue. Facebook is indeed in some sense the world’s police, and it isn’t happy with the role. Last week I chronicled the intricate debate that accompanies every change to Facebook’s speech rules at its fortnightly rule-making council. Zuckerberg has said he doesn’t think Facebook should be “making these decisions on [its] own”, and so at every turn it is now trying to share them with outsiders. That is one kind of transparency, but I wonder if Facebook’s big de-lapisifaction is attempting another.
As long as that big blue bar hovered over the page, users could not forget that Facebook was watching over it all. Once that might have been a comfort, but today the brand is more toxic. Facebook doesn’t want to loom over anything any more.
In the new interface there is no top bar. The looming presence is gone. Now it is as if there is nothing between you, the user, and the people that you care about. There’s no giant company spinning an algorithmic spider’s web over the world’s communications. This version of Facebook is transparent in the sense of being invisible. It feels to me like it is trying to hide.
That matches Facebook’s own ideology. Its executives often speak as if the expensive and highly technical systems they build just neutrally respond to and channel its users’ desires. Despite this, Facebook is still there. In this new “privacy-focused” world, it may be even more “there”. It will facilitate, shape and be intertwined with people’s most private conversations, even if it cannot read them directly. Most people’s real-world living rooms are owned or rented by them, and require an explosion or a bulldozer to actually destroy. Facebook doesn’t just own this living room; it is the living room.
To successfully retreat from view, and to hide behind updates from your “friends and family” even as it arithmetically selects them for your eyes, would be quite a vanishing act. But then Facebook has executed many impressive sleights of hand before.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)