Has Facebook gone too far this time?

Uproar over privacy revisions comes as new plug-ins amount to a game-changer

JD Lasica

Like others among Facebook‘s 400 million members, I’m awed and dazzled by the sheer power and growing grandeur of the site. But I’m also perplexed by the almost cavalier way in which it has approached the topic of privacy, as if privacy were a remnant of a bygone era. (Is this partly the byproduct of having a 26-year-old CEO — who grew up in an era where sharing trumps privacy — at the helm? I suspect so.)

By the way, happy birthday to Mark Zuckerberg. The Dobbs Ferry, NY, native turned 26 today — says so on his Facebook page.

(We hope you’ll take this poll — it’s the first one we’ve offered here at Socialmedia.biz, using the PollDaddy plug-in. The WP-Polls plug-in and SodaHead Polls plug-in did not work.)

This morning, at the Social Media Breakfast East Bay (I’m the chapter’s co-founder), I said I was captivated by the almost Shakespearean tragedy that seems to be unfolding — would Facebook implode from its hubris and utter lack of awareness?

The mammoth global network has been cruising for a bruising with its wholesale and repeated changes not only to its privacy policy but in the way it has changed its infrastructure to share members’ information across the Web. Yesterday I read attacks on Facebook by Jason Calacanis (citing his earlier video warning), Jeff Jarvis (Facebook “should use open-source standards” for identity and privacy) and Robert Scoble (“The common feeling [is] that we can’t trust Facebook anymore”). All this on top of last week’sFTC complaint against Facebook filed by 15 privacy and consumer protection organizations.

mark-zuckerberg, photo by JD LasicaEarlier today the Wall Street Journal ran the story, Looking to Delete Your Facebook Account? You’re Not Alone, and reported, “How do I delete my Facebook account?” was a trending Google search last night.

And now, to join the fray, Moveon.org today launched a petition drive with the title, Did you see what Facebook is trying to do?, sending that missive (with the chart at top) to its 5 million members. Moveon invited its members to tweet this:

Did you see what Facebook is trying to do? Check out this chart – http://bit.ly/9CspPj – #FacebookFail

And a huge number of people are doing just that.

This wouldn’t be happening (a) if Facebook were not such a powerhouse, and (b) if they had a greater sense of the public’s apprehension about how they’re sharing its members’ data. Consider Facebook’s stats:

Facebook by the numbers

• On March 13, Facebook overtook Google as the most trafficked website in the United States.

• Facebook has more than 400 million members — bigger than all but two nations on earth.

• 25 percent of all US Internet page views are on Facebook.

Facebook now tops Google for weekly US Internet traffic.

• 54 percent of all US Internet users are on Facebook.

• Over 200 million people log in every day. The average time spent on the site: 55 minutes.

• Members upload 10 million videos and about a billion photos to Facebook every month.

• 50 percent of mobile Internet traffic in the UK is on Facebook.

• More than 20 million people join Facebook Pages every day. Those pages have been “fanned” (and now “liked”) 5.3 billion times.

• People have pressed the Like button more than 1 billion times in 2 months — and the rate is growing.

• Members’ average age: 34. The average user has 130 friends. 70 percent of Facebook members are outside the US.

Astonishing.

Social plug-ins that are changing the Web

Not everyone is upset by Facebook’s newly aggressive approach. Marketers, not surprisingly, are enthralled by the public release of huge amounts of data — most of which took place a few weeks back when Facebook changed its default settings for much of the content on the site.

“This is a marketer’s dream!”

At a webinar last night called “Tapping Into the Facebook Goldmine,” I listened in as a leading social marketer waxed ecstatic about the “unbelievably powerful” of the new phenomenon of “social proofing” ushered in by Facebook — the idea that when your friends “like,” or endorse, a person, idea, product or service, you are significantly more likely to internalize that belief over a message that comes from an unknown third party. “This is a marketer’s dream!” he gushed.

The marketer — whom I admire (and won’t name because it would amount to an unfair blindside) — went on to describe the series of social plug-ins (for developers and members) that Facebook released on April 21, which most people are only vaguely aware of:

• Like button: The Like button lets users share pages from your site back to their Facebook profile with one click.
• Like Box: The Like box enables users to like your Facebook Page and view its stream directly from your website.
• Facepile: The Facepile plugin shows profile pictures of the user’s friends who have already signed up for your site.
• Recommendations: The Recommendations plugin gives users personalized suggestions for pages on your site they might like.
• Login with Faces: The Login with Faces plugin shows profile pictures of the user’s friends who have already signed up for your site in addition to a login button.
• Comments: The Comments plugin lets users comment on any piece of content on your site.
• Activity Feed: The Activity Feed plugin shows users what their friends are doing on your site through likes and comments.
• Live Stream: The Live Stream plugin lets your users share activity and comments in real-time as they interact during a live event.

“These social plug-ins amount to a fundamental transformation in the way we communicate,” he added. “The Like button is a revolution — it’s a different mindshare. It doesn’t take much to share a Like, but its power is awesome.”

I haven’t checked most of these out, but I will, and I’ll probably adopt most of them. (I’m planning a post about these next month here.)

Eternal advice on privacy settings

Where do I come down on this? I’m with Chris Pirillo, whose advice on privacy is simple:Stop sharing stuff online that you don’t want people to know about. And, like Robert Scoble did, I share much of my Facebook content with the wider world, since I see Facebook — and Twitter, too — as a sharing network. (I share my more personal information with friends in other ways.)

Facebook has its own business imperatives. Should the company implement a far-reaching series of reforms to ease its members’ legitimate concerns, including giving its members greater, easier-to-understand control over public vs. private settings? Absolutely.

Do its business objectives and the idea of an open Web coincide? No. But we shouldn’t expect them to.

Should Facebook be surprised by the ferocity of the public’s reaction to its recent moves? Hardly — not given this recent comment by early Facebook investor Ron Conway:

“Facebook is becoming the Web. Everything you need is there. .. It is the universe.”

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