The Fuss About Facebook

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You can’t poke a person you hardly care about without reading a complaint about Facebook and their changing/evolving privacy issues.

This is not a big deal and – on top of that – what did you expect?

Facebook can (and will) do what they want. They’re not a charity. They’re not an online social network established for the greater good. They are a business. And, like all businesses, they are trying to figure out how to make a dime (and then how to make many more of them). Facebook is also free to users around the world, so how did you think they were going to makes those dimes?

It has to be more than advertising.

Sure, Facebook surpassed Yahoo! recently as the one online platform that has served the most banner ads, but in a world where everyone is a publisher, and the amount of content being published daily is staggering, it should come as no surprise that the value of banner ads (or any other form on traditional online advertising) is going to drop (both in price and people’s engagement) – with a few notable exceptions for the near future. In case you have not been playing along at home, the amount of people clicking on banners ads has dropped over 50% since 2007. On top of that, the inventory to place those ads is no longer limited (traditional advertising in print was always driven by the scarcity model – only a handful of places to get your message in front of a mass amount of people). There is plenty of inventory available on plenty of sites with plenty of choices in the Digital Marketing channels. It’s not like the "good old days" when a city only had one or two newspapers with a limited page count.

It never was about the advertising, because it was always about the data.

Facebook can tell you weeks in advance if your relationship is going to end (more on that here: The Slate – Facebook predicts your relationship is over). They can see if you are looking for a new mate simply by what’s you’re doing on Facebook (maybe you’ve been friending more boys or girls than you usually do, attending certain types of events, etc…). Robert Scoble of the famed Scobleizer Blog recently had a Blog post titled, Much ado about privacy on Facebook (I wish Facebook were MORE open!!!), which reminds me of Howard Stern‘s frequent rap that those who are doing nothing wrong should have nothing to be afraid of if the government and police start recording our every move in public spaces (who cares what they’re recording if you’re not up to any shenanigans?). That’s one side to take (while many others are concerned about their privacy and the information that is being stored against them).

Resign your privacy.

That’s not a new concept (in fact, it’s a big part of my first book, Six Pixels of Separation). The crux of it is this: if you want to use Facebook, and it’s free you’re going to have to be very comfortable with the fact that your information could become public. On the latest episode of the Media Hacks Podcast (SPOS #202 – Media Hacks #28), Chris Brogan (co-author with Julien Smith of Trust Agents and the author of Social Media 101) reminded us that everything we say and do online is being recorded and it’s forever, so you must guide yourself accordingly (it’s all public – from text message and emails to status updates and who you’re poking). As Facebook continues to look for more revenue streams, their only choice is to open up and make more of their content (or your information) public.

Let’s make a break for it!

On May 31st, 2010 there will be a groundswell of people looking to delete their Facebook accounts in defiance of Facebook’s current policies, terms and service agreement (it’s called, Quite Facebook Day). This seems silly to me. Anyone at any point in time can opt out of taking part in Facebook (or any other digital channel). No one is holding a gun to anyone’s head and forcing them to play Farmville. There’s even a new open source online social network called, Diaspora, being created for those who want more control over their online profiles.

Did everyone forget that you control what you publish… always?

If you don’t want Facebook to know something, why publish it? Granted, they have the trending tools to make some pretty accurate assumptions, but it’s pretty simple to not share on Facebook. What is the cost of not sharing? Therein lies the rub: the less you share, the less you connect, the less likely you will be to truly benefit from the Facebook experience (and other online social networks). In the end, if you’re a private person or concerned about your information, status, etc… there is only one option: don’t publish, don’t network and don’t connect.

Just be prepared for the consequences of truly being unplugged… and be sure to ask yourself if it’s worth it?


  1. Thank God! Someone with a sane and rationale point of view. I’m so glad to hear you’re not running around screaming that the “privacy” sky is falling. I’ve just listened to Ontario’s privacy minister vilify Zuckerberg and Facebook as if they’re duping people into relinquishing info.
    Thank you Mitch

  2. Great post, Mitch! I’ve been thinking exactly the same things that you’ve covered here for quite a few weeks now, but hadn’t heard anyone else laying sole responsibility at the feet of users, not Facebook. It’s a connected world we live in, but with that comes the risk that any information you put out there will be shared. Choose what you publish wisely, and stop complaining.

  3. I agree. Free tools and resources online have to be paid for somehow, be it advertising, data or VC investment. Facebook opening their network up generates more content (interest and community pages, etc) and helps them to generate more revenue through increasing what they can charge for traffic by concentrating bidding on certain segments, now more easily identifiable.
    With more data available, their ability to provide more value to their advertisers has increased, and we may start to see some products as cool as the stuff Google Adwords has been coming out with recently.
    I suspect that a part of the problem with privacy that Facebook is experiencing now is due to their own popularity. The issues are not really new online, and over the years there have been a number of different examples of private content going viral online.
    The idea that you should not put something on the web if you do not want it to be seen is fairly common among most people who have been involved online. However they are not the Facebook user base.

  4. Excellent post and I hope loads of people will read it and think before they whine about privacy. It seems clear to most of us that it our choice (and a sensible one) to connect, network and share content – thereby ‘exposing’ ourselves. The price – data about us being used for marketing purposes… Duh – do some people still not ‘get it’? Well, obviously. We meet new clients everyday who are paranoid but want to connect… Ehm. Decisions to be made but, at the end of the day it’s the user who decides how much they share, how much of themselves they expose and how they configure their privacy options. As you said above “nobody is holding a gun to their heads”.

  5. Amen Brother.
    When I signed up at Facebook I knew what I was getting into. I set my privacy settings the way I wanted them and info I didn’t want online I never put online. Recently with all this media hype I decided to recheck what I have up there and maybe tweek the settings, but everything is still set the way I want it. AND miraculously Facebook didn’t hypnotize me into adding more info them I wanted online

  6. Mitch – thank you. finally a voice of reason. The other day, I heard an “expert” bemoan the fact that more brands were entering Facebook and de-valueing her experience. The response is simple – Don’t engage, don’t like pages, participate in sweepstakes, polls – whatever, if you don’t want to. If you want to be part of a free social network, you have to expect that the network will monetize aggregate data – all of them have to. Else, be willing to pay for your privacy. I predict very few are actually going to quit – the transfer costs of re-building their network elsewhere is just too high.

  7. So – does part of the problem of “unplugging” from Facebook lie in missing your friends, or in missing your home base?
    This is a different proposition for someone like me, who has my own site, multiple presences across the web, and a high level of engagement – to trot out the old mantra, I can quit Facebook any time. ANY TIME!
    But for someone like, say, some of my family members (and yours, and your friends) Facebook is THE canonical point of contact between themselves and those they want to connect with. Their unplugging is far more crucial than mine, from this one tool.
    There are ways to address privacy and the expectation of privacy that no one seems to be considering. Diaspora is an attempt, but what about people who want to be public, but want their archive – that college photo gallery – to remain closed? There’s no “archive as private” option in any of the free tools, which is a shame.
    I imagine many people, especially those who are the least bit savvy, will delete their profile as it is, only to start a new one, and go forward publishing only public-friendly data. How useful to Facebook as a business will this mass of sanitized content be?
    Is it worth it to unplug? Depends on how many outlets you’re jacked into. One community source means cold turkey. Removing one from ten just means minor annoyance until you convince your friends to adopt smartly as you have.

  8. Privacy is overrated. If we’re prudent, what’s the worry? We control what we show and where.
    I just uploaded my business address book into Facebook. Hardly anyone is on FB!?!
    I routinely meet business people who do not show up in web searches. What’s more, they see invisibility as a strategy to unleashing their revenue.
    PS The new Gravatar photos are a nice touch.

  9. Mitch,
    Bravo. Thanks for saying it. If you don’t like the car, buy another one. To borrow another Stern line, if you don’t like it, you can turn it off. The price of admission is participation and if you don’t want to participate, then leave the venue.
    You don’t want others telling you how to run your business, Facebook will continue to run theirs while companies like Microsoft look to buy them. The screaming and shouting in much ado about they don’t care. Mark Zuckerberg with all his golly gee baby faced presentations likes being a billionaire and he didn’t get there on the backs of free stuff.

  10. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin
    The same will one day similarly be said about privacy.

  11. Awesome post Mitch,
    I’m getting tired of everyone complaining about how the free sites they spend time on control their business. We’re living in a day and age where we want things free and we want total control. The minute our perceived rights are taken from us, we throw up a Facebook page asking everyone to join and abolish the authority.
    Kudos on your consistently great work.

  12. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a marketer would stand shoulder to shoulder with Facebook on these issues, but I refuse to believe ALL marketers are amoral. Sadly, your piece runs contrary to my optimistic outlook.
    Mitch, you spent so much time throwing up and knocking down straw men, you missed the key points of the protests. It’s not about privacy per se – it’s about trust.
    Facebook makes covenants with their users – and then breaks them. Repeatedly. Deliberately. In pursuit of ever-greater profits.
    It’s a trust issue. It’s an honesty issue.
    And Facebook has failed EVERY single time.
    Since when is “What did you expect? They’re in it for the money!” any kind of mature, moral, or intelligent response to that complaint?
    Facebook promises to allow us to control who sees what we publish – a valuable service – and then sells out that trust.
    As in ‘real’ life, online I chose to join social networks – many of which allow me to control who is in my network. Choosing to communicate with people in those networks is NOT the same as choosing to have everything I say publicly available to anyone who wants to pay for it.
    Social networks – real and virtual – come with implicit and explicit rules that offer real benefits to members of the network.

  13. I’m not standing shoulder to shoulder with anyone (and the implication that because I’m a Marketer, I am not ethical is more than a little insulting to me, my team and my family). This is a free market. If individuals don’t like the fact that with “free” comes the potential that all of their content will be public, then (like I stated above) they can choose to not play, create their own or simply connect with their social network in another fashion.
    I don’t think Facebook makes “covenants” (and if they do, they certainly say that they may change their mind).
    I don’t see what this has to do with Marketing so much as my general frustration that everyone wants everything the way they want it without taking the time to really understand the nature of the relationship and what the overall intent is/was of the business.

  14. Well, I wonder…
    Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail are free too, does it mean they can share every single email each account has sent and received in the past ten years?

  15. … or like how Google Chrome can track every website you’re on and what you type in? I think there’s a difference between “free private email” and then removing the free versus the terms and service from an online social network.
    But, I would be very careful of the emails I am sending through a free service regardless.

  16. Mitch, this is a very heated topic, no question. On one hand, people need to understand that NOTHING is free. In the case of Google, Facebook et al, the “users” are these companies’ products. They sell user information for huge money. The notion of “Free” is just the hook to get users involved so the company has something to sell the advertisers (their real customer).
    But, on the other hand, they need to be honest and open about it so people understand what they are getting into. As an example, the majority of the people who pay attention to blogs like yours and respond to topics like this are the types who typically understand this kind of technology. The vast majority of Facebook, Google and general online users do not. We (the aware minority) can make these educated choices and argue various points of view but the vast majority cannot because they aren’t as aware.
    The privacy advocates are trying to protect the vast majority of users who are not aware of what this industry is all about. Companies like Facebook, Google et al do what they do for their own gain at the potential expense of their users. They change the rules on the fly without the typical user understanding the consequences (except for the explanations provided by those specific vendors who stand to benefit from the users’ misunderstandings).
    Unfortunately, the vast majority of the population needs to sometimes be protected from itself. How many of your readers were “burnt” but the latest collapse of the global financial system. The majority of us were led down the path by a few “experts” who not only knew how to play the game but personally realized significant capital gains when the vast majority of “uneducated” investors were seriously burned. The parallels are very similar here which is why protection is needed.
    But, I totally agree with Chris Brogan’s statement with one subtle change; we need to make people very aware that in this digital world everything they do over any electronic device some day could be made public (if it not already has). My biggest concern though, is that as the consumer over the next few generations becomes increasingly aware of this risk, will they stop using the technology and ultimately eliminate the commercial value it delivers because at the end of the day, they are the commercial value we are all “profiting” from.

  17. We all knew when we posted it that our Facebook info would be open for review. But the privacy settings enabled us to limit who could see it. Those privacy settings were put in place by Facebook to assuage concerns of users. Then they reneged.
    I have no beef with a marketing company making a buck on its product. That’s free enterprise. But the bait-and-switch pulled by Zuckerberg & Co. is a breach of trust. So when the right alternative presents itself, I may do a little switching of my own.

  18. The one thing that this article fails to touch on is the lack of transparency of how Facebook continuously changes it’s privacy policies. The reason for the backlash is the automatic opting in of millions of users to share their information and the complexity of opting out of these options. It’s true that no one is “holding a gun to the head” of the users and if they truly don’t like the service, they should stop using it. Facebook created a dedicated, interconnected community that people fell in love with and of course there will be a backlash if the information they initially thought was private really is not. The business should try to make as much money as they possibly can, but they can’t do that through non-transparent practices. Openness if the cornerstone for any business to survive in today’s competitive landscape.

  19. I don’t have a problem with the lack of privacy but I question the way they are running their development. One day you fan pages, the next day you have “like” buttons. The twist and turns of their day-by-day development blunders make me wonder if there is grown up in charge at facebook.
    Free or not, if your customer is not satisfied with the service you are providing, they will find somewhere else to spend their time.
    Thanks for the opportunity to post my thoughts Mitch!

  20. Like several other people have said, my issue with Facebook is not that it wants to make money off the data (which is the only smart monetization model for Facebook, anyway). It’s the bait and switch. If I upload something with the understanding that it’s private, and the next day Facebook changes its mind and makes what was private public, then it’s breaking its (literal or implied) promise to users. If I make the informed decision to make something public, fine. But if I am told that I can control who views my information, and then that becomes no longer true, then I have been lied to. And no business – whether it’s the corner store using false advertising to lure in customers and then switching the price, or Facebook bait and switching its privacy policy – should get away with that.

  21. My god this is a hot topic!
    I’m the first person to say that you are responsible for anything you put online for everyone to look at. Fine, whatever, go ahead and steal my video showing racoons attack French tourists. I’m sure it won’t be in the next Telus commercial … What DOES bother me is the way Facebook manages the settings for you. Every week a friend of mine will post a little “how to” line on how to deselect a new option that Facebook never told us about. It’s a little backwards. I actually have to go in there and DESELECT and UNCLICK an option I never allowed or chose.
    I mean, do any of you remove paint from your walls until you get the right color?
    Granted it’s a free website, we all benefit from it, yadi yadi yada, but to suddenly see updates from the “24” or “Keane” pages without me asking for it, it’s a little strange (I realized it must have been because I put 24 and Keane in my “favorite tv show” and “music I listen to” boxes on my profile.
    To have ads on the side, top and bottom of the screen, i can deal with. But to suddenly get updates from some random website because I chatted about the topic with a friend earlier, that’s a little creepy. Big Brother is becoming bigger, seriously.
    And to think that this is what you should expect from a free site, well, no, that’s bull*&%t. I’ve had a free hotmail account for 13 or more years now, and a free gmail account for 5. I’ve never paid attention to the ads and I don’t care if they put 10 more on those pages … but they’ve certainly never bothered me with emails I didn’t want.
    I think the real debate is how intrusive should Facebook be, because it’s not about what you put out there anymore for everyone to see, it’s about using that information for publicity and commercial purposes. And I don’t remember that being the purpose of Facebook. It seems to me they’re money hungry. I mean, the CEO is how old, 14 or something? …….

  22. In response to Steve Dodd’s comment: if NOTHING is Free, then why does the word “Free” exist? 🙂

  23. Facebook certainly does take advantage of opaque privacy settings to intrude on users’ privacy. Unfortuntely, the intrusion doesn’t come from Facebook itself, but also from the users themselves. Here’s an example.
    When I was still a Facebook member, I deleted a contact from my list because I was frankly getting sick and tired of reading his (often boastful) status updates 5 times a day. Strangely enough, this contact re-sent me a friend request very shortly thereafter. I thought that was interesting, so I began an experiment. I accepted the Friend Request, and deleted him again some days later. Well, guess what: he re-sent the Friend Request 3 days later. Again, I deleted him. Again, he re-sent the request. Eventually, I left the site, for that reason amongst others.
    What did that experiment tell me?
    1) This contact, who at the time had about 2,000 “Friends” (I guess his definition of “Friend” must have been different to mine, and I’m no anti-social guy myself), had set up a means of automatically requesting a Friendship Request to a former Friend whenever the latter had removed him
    2) He was a total addict who constantly kept watch over his large list of Friends, and checked who had removed him, thereby wasting valuable time doing other things.
    I am leaning towards Option 1, but either way, I’ve got two words for it: “Intrusive”, and “Pathetic”.
    Now I don’t deny that Facebook has its uses, but it personally feels too intrusive for me, and it is certainly NOT transparent with its users.
    So I GOT OUT, just as Mitch recommends if you don’t want to deal with it all.

  24. This is certainly a hard topic with many ins & outs.
    I agree with Mitch, nothing is free. The size of Facebook is extremely costly to keep up, and those private investors (and founders) certainly have high expectations for the company to make tons and tons of money doing the only thing that they can do… monetize consumer data.
    That being said, I can see the frustration of the masses who have made Facebook a central part of how they live their day-to-day lives, and now have to relinquish some ownership of their life information in order to continue participating in this world that they love.
    Now, I don’t know much about the specifics of the legality behind the privacy changes, but I would find it hard to imagine Facebook legally being allowed to access the content that you’ve already placed on its servers. That content was put there under a different legal agreement with Facebook, this is changing the contract, and we as users would have to actively agree to it for them to be allowed to access it (in my very uneducated legal opinion). Also, from my “business law” course at University some years ago, I remember learning that a signature of a contract has to fully understand what they are signing, in order for it to be a legal agreement. How is Facebook legally getting around any of this with their practices? Does anyone know? I’d love to understand this better.
    Fundamentally, I’m not like others. I’m not “running around screaming that the “privacy” sky is falling” as Gary put it. This is reality, and perfectly within Facebook’s right while supplying us with a service. I read something last year (it may have been on here… can’t remember) that talked about how Google, Facebook, YouTube etc. are almost charitable organizations in the online world in their current forms, as they haven’t figured out how to fully monetize their services, and therefore offering them up to us at a fundamental loss. For us to continue to get our fun toys for free, we’ll have to understand that we need to help these companies make their money. Yes, that’s right… we need to help them by allowing access like this to happen.
    But… as I said, I would agree that the approach is sketchy. Facebook could stop a lot of hart-ache simply being open and honest with everyone, just like the rest of us are in this world (and us marketers advise our clients to be everyday).
    I am a marketer, not standing shoulder to shoulder with Facebook… but understanding the reality of what’s going on here, as well as the shady-ness of Facebook’s approach to making these changes.
    I guess I’m not taking sides, but I’m ok with sharing my information.

  25. To dupe people… haha
    That’s part of the problem here that we’re talking about. These services were set up as seeming “free” to consumers, when in reality… the long term plan is always to find a way to make it make money. This is just the next evolution of that.
    It’s like inviting a girl over for a party with lots of friends, food and booze, and when she gets there shadily revealing that there is no party, and you just wanted to get her over all alone on a Saturday night (I know someone who actually did this to a friend of mine… no, it wasn’t me… but sketchy, right).
    Facebook just needs to be more open and honest with everyone, and less like the big bad corporation.

  26. When your best friend invites you to a party with free food and booze and introduces you to other guests or business connections by telling them your job and interests, will you be upset if they approach you about favorite band or the business you’re in? They may even try to give you a deal on something they’re selling. It’s normal. Free food and entertainment comes at a cost, and it’s a cost that each guest is aware of.
    Though Facebook may not always clearly advertise this “cost”, every user knows the premise and really should have no valid reason to complain (so far). The host keeps the door open and you can leave at anytime if the party’s not your “scene”…
    The word “free” at face value (no pun intended) is absent from any business dictionnary in the world Nicolas.

  27. Relax Alex, just a little joke. You shouldn´t take everything said at face value.

  28. Mitch, I like your blog and I’ve read a good bit of “Six Pixels of Separation.” I’m a fan of yours, but I disagree with you.
    Just because organizations like Facebook are cavalier with user privacy doesn’t mean users should expect this type of treatment. Isn’t that the point of Diaspora (the group of NYU students who are using $115 million to create an anti-Facebook)? Am I an idealist? Maybe. But I’m not the only one.
    I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review (“Facebook’s Culture Problem May Be Fatal” by Bruce Nussbaum) about the issue. I like how Nussbaum sums up the problem: “At the moment, [Facebook] has an audience that may be at war with its advertisers.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
    Whatever goal Facebook set out to achieve has been hampered by their inconsideration of what the users want. I’m a Facebook user; yes, I’m looking for an alternative. I get they’re trying to make a buck; that’s fine. But they don’t have any right to rape my profile or friend network just because the service is free and because they can. That wasn’t the deal up front, or I’d be the fool here.
    Here’s the link to that article, if you’d like to read it:

  29. I agree with Bill’s sentiment.
    The point, as I see it, from the article and the comments, is about personal responsibility for our own privacy. I am a photographer who sells stock photos, I rarely put up my images on Facebook, because I assume they will be stolen. Even if I am wrong, it still seems to be the prudent move.
    I am not planning on leaving on May 31st, but I may use Facebook less. It isn’t the center of my internet virtual world, so it won’t be much of a hardship. I have started to gravitate towards Amplify, which seems like a cross between Twitter and FB. Of course, I will have the same cautious attitude towards their social network, as I do all others.
    Good post, great comments all.

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