The social networking company introduced a marketing plan many of its members hated -- and changed course accordingly.
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As if giving marketers access to user information wasn't enough, Facebook wanted to pave the way for marketers to snoop directly into users' personal pages. The initiative, known as Facebook Beacon, tracks members' purchases and activities anywhere on the Web, but within days of the November 2007 launch, a very vocal protest erupted -- sponsoring a MoveOn.org petition and, ironically, spreading word of the unrest through Facebook pages -- effectively forcing Facebook to dial back its initiative, and to issue a major mea culpa.
"We've made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we've made even more with how we've handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it," wrote founder Mark Zuckerberg in his blog in early December.
Like most of the targeting technology currently available, marketers don't know who "you" really are. (See "Oh, Behave!") They don't have your personally identifiable information, but they do recognize your online behavior. That's enough for them to give you what they think you're interested in.
"If we found the right balance, Beacon would give people an easy and controlled way to share more of that information with their friends," Zuckerberg wrote in his blog post. "But we missed the right balance."
The new parameters change the program from an opt-out system (that users complained was difficult to opt out of) to an opt-in model that includes what Zuckerberg called "a privacy control to turn off Beacon completely."
Nevertheless, as Facebook continues its attempts to take targeted and viral marketing to the next level, marketing may get more invasive, signaling the imminent need to confront security issues across the entire Web. Despite recognizing the basic value of a user's private information, Facebook remains on thin ice.
"There are complex social norms and expectations...when we're allowed to notice what someone says," says David Weinberger, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. As in real life, Weinberger observes, Internet users have managed to establish and value an implicit understanding of exclusivity: "What we do on one site, in one transaction, with one business, stays within that business."
Beacon changes the rules: When a user makes a purchase on a participating site, a pop-up will appear asking her if she would like to put the recently purchased item in her profile. In the original Beacon, the absence of a response was recorded as assent; the new version will require deliberate intent, Zuckerberg wrote. Weinberger believes this marks a major change: "Users generally don't mean 'yes' when they don't say anything."
"It's one of the few times Facebook really [had] not acted on behalf of its users," Weinberger says. "It [was] an attempt to get them to use this feature even if they didn't want to."
The old adage -- "If you don't like it, just leave" -- doesn't really apply anymore. Sites such as Facebook and MySpace have become an integral part of members' business and personal relationships. Weinberger argues that "it's not a valid argument to say you can maintain your privacy if you become a cultural hermit." As a result, after having integrated itself into people's lives, Facebook has a responsibility to protect its tens of millions of users, he says.
Still, even in its stripped-down version, Beacon holds the promise of changing the way marketers market -- provided enough members opt in, of course. "They're planting seeds," says Monique Tapie, corporate communications manager at Global Advertising Strategies.
Others may also be sowing seeds: Google, for example, is contributing to the accessibility of consumer information with the launch of a social networking platform called OpenSocial. By catering to the consumer's desire for better "portability and interoperability," Weinberger says, it's only going to ignite more security concerns as it breaks down the walls of what are currently locked sites. "The availability of information on the Web is just too tempting to advertisers," Weinberger says.
But will Facebook's presence convince users to give into even a dimmed version of Beacon? According to the recent ChoiceStream Personalization Survey (which has a margin of error of about 3 percent), although 66 percent of consumers expressed concerns about their privacy, 76 percent wanted some form of personalized content and 34 percent were willing to let sites track their behavior. Facebook's original newsfeeds have always tracked in-site behavior, but there was an unexpected backlash even for that level of tracking. Members eventually got over it -- or at least were willing to make the trade-off. But unlike newsfeeds, which served to benefit the user experience, ads are perceived to be benefiting only Facebook's economic endeavors.
"I hope [users] don't get over it," Weinberger says, fearing that acceptance will irrevocably weaken privacy across the Web. "There are certain things we don't want to monetize, even if we think people would agree to it."
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