Maybe Mark Zuckerberg’s youth–he’s 23–explains Facebook’s ham-fisted schemes to weave its users’ personal information into skeins of gold. I don’t believe his purposes are nefarious. As Facebook Beacon and Facebook Social Ads show, he does have a knack for letting dollar signs get ahead of his judgment. He is developing a skill for reversing field when what looked like a great idea around the boardroom table runs into the buzzsaw of user opinion.
First a recap. A few weeks ago Facebook announced Facebook Beacon, “a new way to socially distribute information on Facebook.”
The websites participating in Beacon can determine the most relevant and appropriate set of actions from their sites that users can distribute on Facebook. These actions can include posting an item for sale, completing a purchase, scoring a high score in an online game or viewing of video. When users who are logged into Facebook visit a participating site, they receive a prompt asking whether to they want to share those activities with their friends on Facebook. If they do, those friends can now view those actions through News Feed or Mini-Feed stories.
In other words, if a Facebook user lists items for sale on eBay or buys a movie ticket on Fandango, a pop-up asks whether the user wants to share this news–and on Facebook this is considered news–with their Facebook friends. The breathtaking narcissism of such newsy updates aside, Facebook Beacon takes a giant step towards a future when we will all be defined by the commercial value of our online data trail. Facebook stated “[i]n keeping with Facebook’s philosophy of user control, Facebook Beacon provides advanced privacy controls so Facebook users can decide whether to distribute specific actions from participating sites with their friends.” However, those “advanced privacy controls” are less assuring than promised. Yesterday a student and I read through Facebook’s user agreement and privacy policies to see whether one could elect not to participate in Facebook Beacon, other than by not using Facebook. Users can elect not to distribute to friends news of specific transactions, but to date there is no one-stop mechanism to opt-out entirely.
Facebook Social Ads are another part of the story. They “leverage the power of Facebook News Feed by serving relevant stories about friends engaging with your business.” Here’s how Facebook pitches them to businesses:
Reach the right people.
Instead of creating an advertisement and hoping that it reaches the right customers, you can create a Facebook Social Ad and target it precisely to the audience you choose. The ads can also be shown to users whose friends have recently engaged with your Facebook Page or engaged with your website through Facebook Beacon. Social Ads are more likely to influence users when they appear next to a story about a friend’s interaction with your business.
The concept is brilliant–every Facebook user can, through association with purchases, downloads, ratings, and other digital flotsam, become his or her own brand. Facebook “friends” (which should always be in quotes in this context) could follow my data trail and decide “my father is sort of like Professor Randall, so maybe he’d like a pound of Malabar Gold Espresso, No Country for Old Men (the book, not the movie–he’s old school, remember), and Lindsay Mac’s Small Revolution for his birthday.” Or, back in the real world, cool hunters will track young fashionistas to decrease the lag between cutting edge and The Gap. Clickstream data, just laying around waiting to be turned into skeins of gold.
Brilliant. Except for the backlash.
Facebook: What Would Google Do?: There is something astoundingly tone deaf about how Facebook has handled its recent advertising initiatives. Mr. Zuckerberg is right: there are lots of people who would find it cool to tell the world what movies they just rented and even what color socks they just bought. But they’ve got to know that others would find this intrusive. And they couldn’t have picked a worse way to implement the Beacon system first: automatically telling your friends everything you did on participating sites unless you found and pushed a button to cancel the disclosure. (This timeline shows how hard it was at first to figure out what was going on.)
Are Facebook’s Social Ads Illegal?: There is at least one problem with this idea: It may be illegal under a 100-year-old New York privacy law. The statute says that “any person whose name, portrait, picture, or voice is used within this state for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade without the written consent first obtained” can sue for damages. Moreover, such a use is also a criminal misdemeanor.
MoveOn Launches Privacy Campaign Against Facebook Social Ads: Calling Facebook’s new Social Ads strategy an invasion of privacy, MoveOn.org is asking Facebook members to sign a petition against the social network’s new ad plan.
Facebook’s “Fan-sumers:” Do Social Ads Violate Users’ Privacy?: [Law professor and privacy expert Daniel Solove] noted on his blog, “Facebook . . . assumes that if people rate products highly or write good things about a product then they consent to being used in an advertisement for it. Facebook doesn’t understand that privacy amounts to much more than keeping secrets — it involves controlling accessibility to personal data.”
Zuckerberg isn’t stupid, just surrounded by true believers who can’t view Facebook from outside the bubble. After ten thousand slaps upside the head Facebook has made Social Ads opt-in rather than opt-out. Under Pressure, Facebook Modifies Social Ads Program: “As of late Thursday, Facebook users must now proactively consent to alert friends whenever they take various actions, such as renting a DVD or purchasing a pair of sneakers . . . Now, as part of the changes enacted on Nov. 29, consumers who make such purchases will receive notices that Facebook intends to inform others about their actions—but only if they approve by clicking an “OK” button.” Problem handled, until the next wrong-footed product roll-out.