Facebook’s Menlo Park, CA, campus may be blanketed in 4G signals and Wi-Fi connections, but the places where Facebook’s is growing the most don’t have access to such powerful networks. That’s why Facebook employees are engaging in an interesting experiment for an hour each week: 2G Tuesdays.
In order to close the “empathy gap” between Silicon Valley and the developing world, every Tuesday Facebook employees have the option to slow their connection down to 2G speeds, Business Insider reports. In short, Facebook wants its engineers and designers to see how the other half of the broadband divide experiences its services – except in this case, “half” would be an underestimation.
According to mobile network maker Ericsson’s most recent Mobility Report, there were 7.1 billion mobile subscribers in the world in 2014, but 4 billion of them had access only to 2G GSM/EDGE networks. As Facebook expands its reach into India, Southeast and Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, many of its new customers are tapping into dial-up or slower speeds. What’s more, they’re using feature phones – Ericsson estimates that there were 2.6 billion smartphone connections globally in 2014 – meaning they’re making use of Facebook’s more basic apps if not their mobile browsers for social networking. Newsfeeds that might appear near instantaneously on a 4G smartphone might take minutes to render over a 2G connection. Video wouldn’t play at all.
There’s a huge gap between the typical experience of a Facebook developer and Facebook’s newest users, and kudos to Facebook’s emerging markets team at attempting to understand that experience even in insulated Menlo Park. Facebook has long taken the optimization of its products for developing markets very seriously (it has to if it expects to keep growing). It’s introduced barebones versions of its website like Facebook Zero — which basically turns the Facebook interface into a text-only website – and it’s tweaked its mobile apps to consume much smaller amounts of data in broadband-scarce regions. Through Internet.org, Facebook has even tried to make the mobile phone (and Facebook’s apps) the first means of accessing the Internet for millions of previously unconnected people.
More mobile developers would do well to follow Facebook’s lead, and I’m not just talking about companies targeting emerging markets. In the U.S. and Europe there are plenty of places where the best connection speed available is over a pokey 2G network, yet so many apps seem designed with the assumption you’ll always have a decent Internet connection. Even apps with offline features often spend minutes trying to squeeze background data over through congested pipes before giving you access to their offline capabilities.