26 May 2010

A few words on the social web

You may have noticed a firestorm of opinion and coverage over privacy at Facebook (FB), a social networking site where people tend to put a lot of private information, with the intention of sharing it with friends in their networks. (Twitter is facing similar questions, but their management is a lot smarter at dealing with it, has lower costs, and is less desperate to monetize its users.)

The firestorm has come from a rapid change in privacy settings, from only a few people to the entire internet. See this post for that change and this one for FB's complicated privacy interface.

Why is it complicated? Because FB wants to sell targeted ads, and advertisers will pay more to reach 24 year old female in 90210 than a generic user, like me.

FB doesn't want to make it easy for you to hide from adverts.*

Google has made billions with targeted ads, and FB execs got the silly idea that they could too. They just missed one major thing -- people are searching for stuff on google.** On FB, they just want to chat with each other.

So FB is stuck, desperately trying to generate money.

I see two futures here:
  1. FB starts to charge a membership fee or goes fremium (allowing you 100 friends and/or wall posts for free but requiring money for more), but you can see how that would impede FB's goal of intergalactic social graphing. FB has grown because it's free. Those network effects mattered, but they were built on a value proposition that was a money loser. Far fewer "members" would pay, let alone invite friends, if it cost $0.02. So FB needs to figure out a way to make subscription revenue and drop the advertising path.

    [I just saw that FB has apologized for their silly behavior while promising to stay free. That's not gonna work,*** so #1 is out...]

  2. FB struggles with free and ads. Maybe it shuts down, but then it goes rogue. All of that data you gave FB when you were 20, inexperienced, foolish and frequently photographed? FB is going to come back, when you are 30 or 40 and ask for a payment, to keep it private. (Right, Carla Bruni?). That's because FB never really deletes your data when you tell them to "cancel your membership."
But let's step back a bit and consider how we got into this situation. What is it with these friends (FB) and followers (twitter) that people are so eager to acquire. How many of your "friends" do you correspond with -- via a wall-to-wall dialogue -- on FB or twitter? Are you talking with or past each other?

Are these people really friends, or some debased social currency that seems valuable from a social perspective that has not changed much since the 19th century?

Here's the way I see it. Our physical evolution is taking the most time, and it's not quite up to speed with the whole farming thing; we suffer from our food choices, and lack of physical activity (at right :)

Our cultural evolution is much faster, but we still have issues (what's up with all these migrants! people who believe in the wrong god, etc.)

Our technology is evolving the fastest, but we are having trouble keeping up. Some people still don't know how to handle cell phone calls (do NOT answer in the toilet!) FB and Twitter let us broadcast ourselves. Self-advertising has a place in our physical (mate with me!) and cultural (let's cooperate!) spaces, but these "zero cost" mechanisms do have costs, in terms of distractions for those who think that 1,000 friends makes them a success and the spew of navel-gazing that those "friends" have to put up with.****

Maybe this is me not "getting it," but I wonder. Do your "friends" buy you drinks? Will they help you with a project? Would you do that for them? Are you really a part of their lives, or are you texting past each other?

Bottom Line: Technology is out there, and it can be useful, but we need to be sensitive to the social, cultural and biological behaviors, norms and constraints that are very important to making our lives and friendships meaningful. Ignore them and you're likely to be unhappy, even with 453 "friends."

* I started a FB group -- Facebook's Fascist Follies -- to highlight these silly games, and I recommend this tool because it helps you see what FB is exposing.
** It's funny, actually, that google's email is free when people -- like me -- would be willing to pay $50/year. Google doesn't charge because it makes more money with ads.
*** One way or another, I agree with these guys, that social networks are going open source and interlinked, the way our emails are -- different providers, but communication via common protocols.
**** "Twoobs are needy female celebrities who take pictures of their boobs and Tweet them to their devoted followers in order to get the extra attention they feel they aren't receiving that particular day."


RM said...


DFB said...

More than the complexity of the privacy settings, I think the biggest issue most people have with how FB handles privacy is that it puts out new features and ways to share information with the default setting: share with everyone. It then fails to adequately notify users about this change and leave us all scrambling to figure out what changed, who data is shared with, and how to control who sees our information. And when it does decide to inform users, FB uses intentionally difficult, kludgey, and confusing page flows and disclosures.

That kind of material change to its privacy policy/contract with the user is both unsettling and borderline illegal. It hardly satisfies any consideration of informed consent. I'm still surprised the plaintiff's bar has not filed suit over its latest set of changes.

The second thing that has ruffled a lot of feathers and likewise proved unsettling is the arrogance that FB has shown in its behavior. Its founder has made it clear that he thinks nothing should be kept private. To that end, FB has been pushing his world view on its users. That's partly also why FB apologizes profusely and three months later repeat similar shady privacy-related moves.

As for targeted and behavioral ads, FB does not really need to do the things it is doing. Its current M.O. is about getting people to share more and make it more difficult to avoid the company. It is the fact that it is sharing info with 3rd parties that has it in hot water.

To serve behavioral ads, it could do what Google or Yahoo! do and disclose that they serve ads based on the information collected on their systems/networks, web sites they serve ads to, and so forth. User info is not actually shared through behavioral ads. That is unless you both click the ad and give your identity to the web site you landed on.

You can see part of what Y! and G know about you (or at least what they use to serve behavioral/targeted ads).


Bottom line: Like other web sites that came before it, Facebook is replaceable. It doesn't take much more than arrogance to turn folks away in search of the next cool and useful site. This is especially true after the novelty wears off. :-)

David Zetland said...

@DFB -- well said!

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