Facebook: The new face of evil?

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I always got a kick out of Google’s corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.”  To me, this ultra-altruistic philosophy was beautiful in its simplicity and intent.  But alas, when you’re in the business of making money it’s sometimes necessary to soften one’s ideals, hence Google’s revised slogan: You can make money without doing evil.

Despite its industry titan status and the realities of operating in a social media world where consumers have more control than ever, Google has done a pretty decent job of living up to its ideals and preserving its brand image.  Facebook, on the other hand, risks being handed a pitchfork and growing a set of horns should it not do more to safeguard its reputation and relationship with three key constituencies, government regulators, consumers and advertisers.  One must wonder if Facebook’s mind boggling success has led to a technological hubris that prevents the company from understanding that the Facebook brand is not invincible.  In the shadow of Myspace’s perilous decline, surely Facebook isn’t yet “too big to fail.”

Government regulators are making Facebook the poster child for privacy concerns

The privacy issues confronting Facebook have been well covered in the media.  Worldwide, government officials concerned with protecting the data of its citizens have expressed their grave concern with Facebook’s privacy policies.  In response, Facebook has made incremental changes to the site’s privacy settings, resulting in a confusing labyrinth of profile opt-outs that are unlikely to be altered or fully understood by the average user.

(update:  just this morning Facebook announced that it plans to simplify privacy settings in response to backlash)

While the ongoing privacy concerns are causing some people (mostly tech insiders) to quit Facebook altogether, it has also led to applications like Reclaim Privacy, an open-source browser-based privacy scanner that automatically inspects your Facebook privacy settings and denotes settings that are risky privacy-wise.  While such tools are welcome, I honestly doubt the average person will use them, or be motivated enough to care.

The truth is that privacy has never been a top priority for Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook is about sharing information, and putting limitations on what gets shared runs counter to its interests. Sharing and capturing data is Facebook’s business.  Privacy will always be a casualty of Facebook’s success.  Or, as Pete Cashmore put more starkly, privacy is dead and social media holds the smoking gun.

But in an era characterized by government intervention in response to unregulated lending practices, inadequate safeguards for offshore oil drilling and overall corporate malfeasance, look for governments to remain on the offensive with this issue, and Facebook and others will have no choice but to cooperate.

Facebook dilutes the value of relationships amongst consumers.

Are people beginning to internalize how Facebook (the face of social media) debases the quality of our relationships?  Jarod Lanier, in his recent book You Are Not a Gadget writes extensively about how technology and social media in particular imposes an artificial layer between people – making it increasingly difficult for individuals to truly relate to one another.

If this is too ethereal of a concept for Joe Average to grasp, there still remains the steady stream of scams making news, such as the one reported by Bloomberg last week about an agency setting up fake personal profiles and “friending” people left right and centre, accumulating thousands of contacts, presumably to hit them up later with some kind of offer or deal.  It’s kind of ironic that a medium which markets itself on authenticity and transparency falls short on its ideals so emphatically.

It’s not always appropriate to “Like” something.

Then, there is the increasingly ubiquitous “Like” button.  “Like” used to be a feature found only on Facebook’s pages, serving as an invitation to show your appreciation or enthusiasm for a comment a friend had made, or content that she’d shared.

As a feature of Facebook’s new Open Graph policy, you’ll see “Like” embedded more and more places online – often times in the wrong context like this news story entitled “Thief lifts laptop with photos of deceased child’s battle with cancer.”  As this monolithic voting system permeates the web, Facebook is accumulating more data on the preferences and behaviour of consumers.   As Mitch Joel said, how about a “Don’t Like” button?  Or, Facebook could take a page out of The Huffington Post’s book, and give readers a chance to truly express themselves with a range of emotions /reactions.

Community Pages risk alienating advertisers

Brands have always been uneasy about social media due to the lack of control and potential negative exposure.  Companies must develop rules of engagement for how to deal with online conversations involving their brand, including dealing with individual customer complaints or more organized brand jacking.   But just as brands are acclimatizing to this new environment, Facebook’s newly minted Community Pages changes the game again.

In case you missed it, Community Pages are the new home for topics of interest that aren’t brands, like cooking or basketball.  These pages automatically aggregate related content from the Facebook ecosystem and Wikipedia.  It’s inevitable that the aggregated information will include conversations about brands.  But unlike the traditional brand fan pages, there’s no means for brands to respond or redirect the conversation.  They might as well throw their newly scribed rules of engagement out the window.

This is an example of Facebook innovating at a pace that outstrips the market.  In stealing further control from their clients, Facebook is biting the hands that feed it.  I would fully expect Facebook to heed the feedback of its customers on this one.

There’s no question that managing an entirely new breed of company that’s growing as quickly as Facebook would be a challenge.  When you’ve got half a billion users, the slightest change to your product is sure to have unforeseen repercussions.  But in the age of Customer experience, Facebook should be more proactively thinking about how their moves impact the constituents vital to their being.

As Jeremiah Owyang tweeted just the other day:  “Like their founder, Facebook acts their age. Energetic, innovative, and fast, yet like most youth, they don’t think [things] through.” Too many more missteps and Facebook might just find itself wondering what went wrong.  Are we witnessing the beginning of the end to Facebook’s meteoric rise?

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1 COMMENT

  1. Patrick: I just posted a blog on this topic (Social Media Privacy Loopholes: ‘Is This Real Life?’) I wish I’d read this one first. Not because it changed my mind, but because there are some great insights. What confuses this matter is the hype we hear about social media as a force that shifts information power from vendors to consumers. I’ve long wondered whether that’s true. Now I don’t wonder. In light of I’ve read here and elsewhere, only an idiot would say social media information power favors consumers.

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