Facebook: The Annoying Friend

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2007-11-30 Print this article Print


Now that Facebook has switched tack with its Beacon ad system, changing it from opt in to opt out, I wonder how well it will do. The rules of the road for Web sites generally say that opt in buttons are clicked far less than opt out.

What does that say about us as a society? That we are lazy Web users. We won't click to opt in, and we won't bother to click to opt out. Too much extra strain on our carpal tunnel-riddled hands.

All kidding aside, I believe Facebook launched its Ads program earlier this month with the right intentions, making it clear that Facebook users can control what users find out about their online activities.

Facebook assumed the marketing feeds would help keep friends abreast of each other's activities while driving more ad sales through Beacon. Blockbuster.com, Fandango and eBay no doubt loved Facebook's crop of 55 million users.

What Facebook clearly didn't calculate was the potential for backlash of putting such a system in a social network. Your typical Web site is siloed; you go on it, you buy or do stuff, you deal with some annoying ads knowing that you may be targeted later, and that's that.

Beacon takes things to a whole new level, allowing your friends to see what you're up to. With Beacon, Facebook assumes that circulating your online activities is kosher based on a blanket notion of friendship. The premise seems to be, if these people are truly friends, they won't mind sharing their activities with each other.

Beacon is like that friend you had back in college. He was okay to hang out with, but eventually the fact that he was always around to sort of know your business and talk about it willingly with others gnawed at you. He didn't understand boundaries. So you stopped hanging out with him, or you punched him out.

Beacon is the digital proxy of the annoying friend, telling several of your others friends about what you're doing and what you're buying. 

So, Facebook paid for it, enduring a petition with 50,000+ signatories proclaiming Beacon as the "man" trampling on privacy. Thanks to the new ad system, the site went from friendly to intrusive, invasive and uncool. Yet, they will survive.

We've heard this story before: a brash, up-and-coming site upsets people with its online advertising practices. Google, with the way it targets ads, went (and still goes) through much of the same stuff Facebook is going through. But while both companies' ad practices upset people, the means are different.

The privacy implications hounding Google are not about friendships; they are about algorithms and machines. Google's search technology sifts through Gmail to mine data for ad placement. Its My Location application approximates positions through other people's cell phone signals.

It is cold, alien and sort of innocuous; people cry about Google's alleged privacy violations but they don't give you any evidence of how it is harmful or annoying. They just don't like that the technology is there.

Google's privacy woes pit technology versus individuals. Facebook's privacy issues pit people versus people, and that is never good.

What this tells is just how delicate personal privacy is. What this tells us is that just because the people on our social network sites are our friends, it doesn't mean we want them to know everything we buy, do, or have an opinion on.

Facebook, the ultimate social network, needs to understand social boundaries. Facebook doesn't want to be that annoying friend.  

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