Awesome, Facebook–But the Users Will Still Own the Web

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his handlers clearly have found a way to replicate Steve Jobs’ infamous reality distortion field, that charismatic glow during the Apple CEO’s product introductions that seems to soften the hearts of even the most jaded skeptics. I didn’t attend the company’s F8 developers conference today, where Zuckerberg held forth on a number of new initiatives intended to extend its influence across the Web, taking people’s interests, likes, and online behavior beyond Facebook to many other sites. But watching the chorus of tweets on Twitter, it was clear that the young CEO had most of his audience in thrall.

And with some good reason. As sums it up:

Facebook is making it even easier for users to take their Facebook identity with them as they navigate the web. At its developers conference this morning, the company announced a set of “social plugins” that, among other capabilities, let visitors to third-party websites indicate to their Facebook contacts that they “Like” a specific piece of content, without having to log-in to the third-party site (The user does, of course, have to be logged in to Facebook). To add the plugin, websites only have to add one line of code. The “Like” button is just the start. Once a site has added that plugin, it can also add others so that visitors can see what their Facebook friends have “Liked” and also get content suggestions.

The upshot, says Mathew Ingram at GigaOM:

Facebook wants to own your activity on the Internet. Zuckerberg did his best to portray this as a great thing for users, but the corollary is inescapable: Facebook will be everywhere you are, watching what you do, keeping track of that data, and talking about what you’re doing to your friends and companies you “like.”

Already, some observers are saying that Facebook has just seized control of the Internet and that it’s about to conquer the rest of the world. For pete’s sake, let’s get a grip. I’m not going to stop searching on Google (I kind of like that Google’s algorithms produce results informed by the judgment of thousands or millions of people rather than just my dozens or hundreds of friends and acquaintances). I’m not going to stop using Yahoo Mail (unless it keeps getting slower and slower). I’m not going to stop tweeting (Twitter is a different service and a different audience than my circle in Facebook). And neither are you.

Maybe, even as a fairly active Facebook user, I’m missing something. Facebook’s moves no doubt will spread its tentacles across a large portion of the Web. But it’s by no means certain that most users (let alone all developers) will go along–especially once they realize how far and wide their likes and preferences and behavior could travel beyond where they expected.

One problem is that Facebook doesn’t yet command the complete trust of its users–not even as much as Google, which has come in for a lot of its own privacy-related criticism lately. Whether it’s because of multiple privacy gaffes or Zuckerberg’s recent statement that public sharing of personal information is the new social norm, the company still has to prove it’s not going to make people uncomfortable sharing stuff on Facebook–and now, well beyond. Even Facebook uberfan Robert Scoble notes, “What we’re really scared about is another very powerful company is forming. One that we don’t yet fully trust.”

And with privacy policies and controls so complex that many people are confused or simply ignore them, it seems likely there will be more privacy blowups to come. (Like these.) After all, notes Greg Sterling, with these new features,

Facebook will eventually be sitting on a mountain of secondary data or metadata: favorite restaurants, places, musicians and many more categories of information. All this data will be structured and associated with its millions and millions of users. What it does or doesn’t do with that information and data will also be interesting to watch.

Very interesting indeed. And this gets to an even more fundamental challenge for Facebook. Its very purpose is to make the Web (and the world, to hear Zuckerberg rhapsodize at F8 about creating heaven on earth) more social. That’s a fine goal. I really like the idea of a social Pandora, for example. But this can’t be done with too broad a brush, because life ain’t that simple.

The thing is, I don’t want most friends and certainly acquaintances (who honestly make up the bulk of my “friends” on Facebook) to know what I’m searching, or to know what articles I read on other sites or even what other sites I visit. For that matter, I don’t care what most of them bought or what movies they like, since I don’t choose friends (and certainly not casual or work acquaintances) based solely on their tastes, which often aren’t the same as mine. Most of all, I’ll share stuff with close friends that I don’t want anyone else to know.

I’m not alone here. Even younger people, whom so many companies whose businesses depend on open data access insist don’t care much about privacy, actually do. Indeed, they’ll care just as much as their elders when they get older and have kids they need to protect, careers they can’t afford to endanger, and longstanding relationships they don’t want to lose because of some offhand post on Facebook.

So we all have perfectly good reasons for not sharing everything with everybody. And yes, I know that technically, I have control over who sees what data. Facebook deserves credit for giving people more tools to control that. But that’s not even close to good enough if those controls are so complex or cumbersome or hard to find that relatively few people use them. The fact remains that what gets revealed by default too often goes against social expectations, and that’s got to come back to bite Facebook–especially since it was built originally on the promise of at least a certain amount of privacy.  As Marshall Kirkpatrick wrote on ReadWriteWeb in January:

By pushing your personal information and conversation through activity updates fully into the public, Facebook is eliminating any integrity of context that these conversations would naturally have. Posted updates can be directed only to limited lists of Facebook contacts, like college buddies or work friends, but that option is buried under more public default options and much of a user’s activity on the site is not subject to that kind of option.

Update: I just went to the personalized music service Pandora, one of several initial partners on the new Facebook features. Lo and behold, there’s my profile photo from Facebook, along with a suggestion that I “try an artist you like from Facebook,” namely Bob Marley, whom I recently “liked” on Facebook. I don’t completely dislike this suggestion. But it is disconcerting for me to see my Facebook mug and likes on another site when I didn’t specifically opt in for this information to be shared. And check out this timeline of changes in Facebook’s privacy policy.

So for all that Facebook announced today, its toughest job remains: Convince users it can be trusted. It’s still too early to count on that.

6 Responses

  1. […] Privacy Controls Posted on May 26, 2010 by robhof After enduring weeks of criticism over new privacy controls, the latest of many such flare-ups, Facebook today is announcing new privacy controls for its […]

  2. Jonathan,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree, and I hope I did not make it sound like Facebook is the only company with privacy issues. In fact, in some ways Facebook has tried to provide more granular controls than most. But it’s not good enough yet, and the company has been somewhat careless about changes in defaults that clearly make some people uncomfortable. You’re right that we may need to trade off privacy, or in particular some personal data, in return for services. That’s fine, as long as the choice is provided in a real way (not just through controls that confound even diehard techies). That’s why I think the bigger issue for Facebook (and others) is not just privacy or particular changes in what’s public but overall trust. Facebook has clearly lost some of that, and it’s tough to get it back.

  3. Rob, I think we’re moving, rapidly, to a world where privacy has a price. I totally agree that Facebook has been cavalier about is treatment of privacy. But let’s not attribute this whole thing to Facebook. Bottom line, we get a LOT of free stuff on the web precisely because of the ability of some publisher to be able to monetize our presence. The more they know about me, they better they are able to monetize that presence and therefore the more valuable I am to them. I think we’ll see a world where you’ll have the ability to maintain privacy, but that will come with an explicit dollar cost or functionality sacrifice.

    I also think we’ll see some great uses of the information, that demonstrate user value to giving up privacy and some egregious violations that hopefully will serve as cautionary tales because of the considerable potential for brand damage. We’re still in the infancy of this social phenomenon and I for one am excited about the potential for value delivery that will make it worth living an “open” existence. I’m going to be in San Francisco next week — you can find that on TripIt, LinkedIn and Facebook, among others — I’m a baseball fan, etc. Why have I never gotten an offer (from my hotel? airline? club?) that says “we see you’re coming to town; here’s a deal on tickets.” Or more urgently “we see you’re coming to town; your favorite team is here too.” So much potential for value… Yes, so much potential for evil but let’s look at both sides of the coin. Right now we’re all about fear.

  4. Well you might want to check out the new ‘see what your friends like’ section that you’ve also been opted into that shows your friends what music you’re listening to by default. Sure, it’s interesting to see your friends’ radio stations, but Facebook sure didn’t ask before opting everyone in and connecting their Facebook IDs to their pandora accounts.

    You might also want to ask what this means how any site which you have an account can cross index to your real identity at Facebook once they are a partner.

    Oh, and try to turn this off. See how many switches you need to set. Hint: the no thanks button isn’t enough.

  5. Thanks, Reuben, good to hear from you. I don’t mean to be too hard on Facebook, since much of what it’s proposing could be a good thing for most of us. But judging from what people tell me about their Facebook activity and their concerns, I just couldn’t go along with the fanboys who think it has won the Web already. Trust is a huge issue.

  6. Rob,

    Thanks for writing this. You gave voice to what I’ve been feeling all day — an overwhelming combined sense of awe at the power that FB has and a simultaneous nausea that the utopia of the open web will make me guard my every online move. Good to feel its not an inevitability.

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