Books, Facebook and Privacy

13 Apr

Facebook is like that popular kid at school who was likeable, could be charming, but inevitably acted like a big bonehead when the chips were down.

Why do I think this? Because they are blowing their biggest commodity (besides their user base, that is): Privacy.

Let me start by saying that I think Facebook is an amazing phenomenon. I use it, I enjoy it, and I tell other people to use it if they aren’t already. This is because of what can be accomplished with Facebook’s technology. It has little to do with the brand facebook is creating, which as Debbie Stier mentioned on her blog, is beginning to feel really sinister and sneaky.

I feel the same way, as I often feel when a company becomes very large, and then very cocky, doing things that would never fly if they were not so large (and cocky). I felt the same way when Microsoft when they programmed their operating system to disable competing programs upon installation.

The reason Debbie and many others feel this way is related to the way Facebook treats their users privacy. My understanding, upon signing up for Facebook, was that is was a closed network, accessible by invitation only. I had to invite, and have that invitation accepted (or vice versa) in order to “see” someone else’s comments, interests, etc. I felt safe in expressing myself in ways that I might not on a completely public website (nothing lurid, just personal photos, opinions, things that distract from my professional persona that is designed for more public consumption).

But since signing on, Facebook has changed their privacy settings and policies a number of times, and changed my privacy settings in the bargain. I have had to go through several complex and confusing hoops in order and change them back. The marketing wisdom in this? That by pushing people towards allowing all their information to become public, they will become a more profitable product for Facebook to sell to marketers and advertisers.

But wait… I’m a marketer. And I believe that Facebook is a great platform to reach you and tell you about books that I think you might want to read. I would love to get a look at all your personal preferences and interests, designing unique promotional campaigns designed around your interests, delivered exclusively to you. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. As long as you’ve asked for it.

That would be called “opting in”, and Danah Boyd had some great things to say about this in a recent article. It’s a key principle in “permission marketing” a term coined by Seth Godin.

However, Facebook seems to want to change their privacy contract and start pushing marketing at you that you didn’t ask for. If you want to get rid of it, you must “opt out”, going through procedures that are increasingly complex, anti-intuitive and confusing.

Opting in should be standard… you shouldn’t have to wonder every week whether previously private information is now public, or whether you’ve pressed the right buttons, only to find out later that you haven’t. You should be offered a choice to opt in upfront, and if you ignore it, your privacy setting should remain as your original contract proscribes.

I think the way that going about this whole Private vs. Public thing is going to continue to erode trust in Facebook. And yes, I know that they have 50 million users. I also know that 3 big television networks once controlled almost all of the video available in America, that Microsoft was never going to fall from dominance, and that Friendster was here to stay. Things change, and users can be fickle. Given the choice to become part of a social network that offered the same services and trustworthy, user friendly policies? I know what I’d choose.

But all of that is beside my main point. I believe that as our lives become increasingly public, as the exposure to and through online media becomes more and more prevalent, Privacy will be the next big, valuable asset in online interactions: something desired, sought after, and achieved with great difficulty. Facebook built a network on that principle, and now they want to throw it away.

At this rate, when Privacy becomes the next big thing, Facebook will no longer have it


2 Responses to “Books, Facebook and Privacy”

  1. Catherine Cassidy April 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    Well said. It seems that privacy is now a commodity that people are having to pay for.

    • Gabriel April 15, 2011 at 12:34 am #

      I think that we’ll be paying more for it as it becomes harder to achieve… the relative scarcity will make it valuable, and facebook has made a practice of trying to eliminate it.

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