For those of you who think the Facebook privacy row has fizzled out, think again. This past week, ten privacy advocacy groups sent an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling for greater user control over their own data. Zuckerberg himself has issued his mea culpa for what many perceive as callous indifference to privacy concerns (a perception that was bolstered by the leak of Zuckerberg’s personal IM’s dating back to his Harvard days), and Facebook has introduced new privacy controls designed to assuage critics, but as the open letter from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other privacy advocates indicates, the furor is far from over.
To be sure, the consequences of Facebook’s privacy missteps have not been as dire as some predicted. There have been some high-profile Facebook account cancellations and even calls for mass defection from the site, but none of this has amounted to a crippling blow. I don’t agree with the naïve apologists who attribute Facebook’s weathering of this storm to the irrelevance of privacy concerns, nor do I think it’s due to the success of Facebook’s damage control efforts. Facebook will continue to dominate the social networking platform space because privacy issues don’t trump the myriad things Facebook has done right: enabling users to create trusted personal networks based on real relationships (what Jeff Jarvis might call “private publics”); creating open API’s to foster a developer ecosystem that delivers sticky apps for users; simplifying content generation and social sharing; and providing brands and advertisers with (relatively) innovative ways to reach and engage with consumers. Facebook’s continued success is also attributable to inertia – users have spent months or years creating peer connections, uploading content, investing time and energy in addictive games, and learning to navigate what for many is an utterly novel online experience. Simply put, moving to another social network would be a pain in the ass even if a better option existed, which at this time it doesn’t. So, for the time being, Facebook will remain the 800 pound gorilla of social networking platforms. That being said, there remains much room for improvement in their handling of the privacy fracas.
Plenty has been written about this controversy, and I’m not going to rehash the plethora of arguments on both sides. Instead, I want to make a simple – but important – point: Facebook is missing a HUGE opportunity to further their stated goal of encouraging a more open Web, AND to advance the interests of brands, whose adoption of the platform is critical to Facebook’s financial future. One of the primary objections to Zuckerberg’s aggressive pursuit of openness is that it appears to be a cynical ploy designed to grant corporations access to the wealth of consumer data wrapped up in Facebook users’ social graphs. Instead of denying this ulterior motive or cloaking itself in the noble rhetoric of openness, Facebook should instead shift the terms of the debate by declaring the apparently-not-so-obvious: corporate access to consumer data is a good thing – for Facebook users! If I were Zuck, I’d be making the same couple of arguments over and over to anyone who’d listen:
- Advertising happens – but it doesn’t have to suck. Remember the Web of 1998? Pages were plastered with garish banner ads, every spare inch crammed full of ridiculous animated gif’s, the actual content eclipsed by the surrounding noise. We’ve come a long way since then. Online advertisers have become more sophisticated. Content publishers have improved the signal-to-noise ratio of their pages. Targeted advertising has introduced relevance into the mix. And still we have a long way to go. Zuckerberg should be championing the user experience benefits of openness. Letting businesses get a glimpse of your actual consumer habits will help them deliver rich, relevant ads that actually enhance your online experience. And that’s a good thing. Why aren’t we hearing more about this?
- The flipside of access is accountability. Companies are falling all over themselves to push marketing messages through social channels, but unlike other media, social technology enables two-way communication. In other words, customers get to talk back, and companies that fail to listen will ultimately lose as more responsive competitors respond to unmet consumer needs. Access to users’ social graphs creates a reciprocal obligation on the part of businesses, which will ultimately benefit consumers. Again, this is a good thing that Zuckerberg should be shouting from the peak of Mount Facebook.
None of this is intended to excuse Facebook’s many missteps, nor is it to deny that privacy should be the default and sharing a decision left to individual users. However, there’s no reason for Zuckerberg to muddy the debate with calls for greater openness or diatribes about the obsolescence of privacy. Instead, he should provide users with a solid rationale to encourage sharing, a move that would simultaneously advance their interests as consumers and help realize the tremendous commercial potential of the Facebook platform.