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3 central questions about Facebook privacy

May 14, 2010

The storm of controversy around Facebook privacy is threatening to scuttle the social media strategies I have recommended in previous posts. I haven’t seen this much dislike of a company since Microsoft tried to subvert open Web standards by cornering the browser market and building it’s own proprietary standards for Web pages that only its browser could see. Some people are even talking about a mass exodus.

What follows is a point of view that runs counter to a lot of the folks I connect with. I don’t think we should participate in this exodus. Neither do I think we should worry all that much about it as marketers. By all means, leave comments if you disagree.

How well founded is the hate?

Much of the vitriol directed at Facebook is similar to the Microsoft pee and vinegar of the late ’90s: Directed at a single individual who appears from the outside as a megalomaniacal jerk. I have some some sympathy with this. When the guy in charge of a lot of your private data has not shown himself to be entirely trustworthy, it gives you pause. But I also have seen some people who seemed evil grow into good guys. Bill Gates is now one of the biggest philanthropists on the planet. So I am less inclined to make this about the Facebook CEO. I’d like to focus on the actual policies and leave aside questions of Zuck’s ethics.

Some of the privacy concerns are legitimate. Facebook started as a fairly private system, which led people to reveal stuff about themselves that they thought was just for their friends. Then Facebook changed privacy policies several times to both open up some of this information to advertisers and other commercial interests (unless you opt out) and make it complicated to secure it again. I could write a case study about how not to handle user privacy based on Facebook’s behavior over the last year.

But some of these privacy concerns seem overblown to me. To quote Lisa Barone:

Facebook has now made its Web site, its partners and its privacy policy so complicated that I’d challenge Mark Zuckerberg to properly set his privacy settings and tell me who has access to which information. I don’t think he could. And if he can’t, how is anyone else supposed to be confident in what they’re sharing?

Sorry, but this makes no sense to me. I have been setting and resetting my privacy since joining Facebook last year and it is far easier now than ever before. When Open Graph came out, everybody got a notice about how to set their privacy policies. I followed the process and I thought it was really easy. And it was much more robust than previous Facebook privacy applications. For the first time, I could set some of my professional information to be accessed by a wider audience. I have spent the better part of my professional life trying to get noticed by Everyone, so I am actually pleased that my accomplishments have more visibility outside of my friends. Of course, I can set  the more personal parts of my profile to just Friends. And there’s even a Friends and Networks setting for information that fits in between, like the fact that I am a freelance writer on my spare time.

I also understand that my view of privacy might be different than the average user. Part of this comes from my religious beliefs. I believe that all my behavior is scrutinized by a higher power. Relative to that, human scrutiny seems trivial. I have no idea where I fit into the spectrum of tolerance for privacy intrusion. But I know I’m not alone in my attitude about privacy.

Almost as many people have joined Facebook since they changed privacy policies in midstream than were on the network before they changed the first time (they’ve changed a bunch of times). I don’t think much of this has to do with religion. I think it has more to do with the features of Facebook. Thing is, if you let the network know about you, it can do a better job of serving your needs. It’s kinda like what we talk about in our book: You have to know your audience to serve them relevant content. Users are voting on Facebook for more relevance, even if it means less privacy.

3 questions about how this affects digital marketers’ Facebook strategies

Each user needs to learn how to control their privacy setting depending on their comfort levels. But this post is not about users. It’s about how anti-Facebook sentiment affects your Facebook strategy.

1. Are the anti-Facebook pundits going to win?

No. Facebook has so much momentum, I can’t see competitors like Diaspora making serious headway into the market. If Diaspora does grow (which I personally would love to see), as Facebook once did against MySpace, it will take a long time. Like years. Simply put, no other site delivers the experience Facebook delivers. The experience is so compelling, it will continue to grow despite the boycotts. If it starts to lose market share, you can rethink your strategy. Until then, you can’t afford not to connect with the largest pool of preconditioned users available on the Web.

2. Will there be a mass exodus from Facebook?

No. I do believe some of the pundits will leave. But even a mass exodus of, say, 100,000 users will still make Facebook the highest trafficked site on the Web by a long shot. It’s also one of the few that offers the kind of audience segmentation and pass-along traffic you need to improve engagement on your pages. Mashable posted the mass exodus link on its Facebook page and 134 people commented as of this writing. The vast majority (something like 130 out of 134) said privacy was not much of a concern considering the kinds of experiences they can have on Facebook for free. And these are people who are friends with Mashable–Internet savvy users.

3. Even if there isn’t a mass exodus, does it make sense to stay away as a “white hat” gesture?

Perhaps. A colleague of mine made this point on a recent strategy call. We at IBM take user privacy very seriously. We want to be industry leaders in this area. So how much of a branding problem is it for us to associate with a site that has far lower standards about user privacy? I personally don’t think it’s that big of a deal because of the size and scale of Facebook. Few would think much of it. But it is worth considering if your brand is in the privacy business. You just have to be prepared to compete with people who have access to this huge social audience about which you know more than any other, anywhere.

Bottom line: It’s worth watching this trend carefully. But I wouldn’t let concerns about privacy change your Facebook strategy. Facebook is still growing by leaps and bounds. It’s too important to ignore.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2010 2:33 pm

    I found Eben Moglen’s address to the NY chapter of the Internet Society fascinating…he basically predicted Diaspora. Read highlights here:

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