Social Networks Need to Take Care

Facebook_logo_2 After an online petition with 52,000 signatures, and some rumblings in other quarters, Facebook has apparently stepped  back from its controversial "service" called Beacon which allows advertisers to aggregate data about user purchases. (Disclosure . . . Blanc & Otus, a U.S. affiliate of my employer H&K, works for Facebook. But I don't. Further disclosure . . . I love Facebook even with its "is" status fault.)

As indicated in The Globe and Mail "The company will now guarantee that no information will be shared without users' consent, according to a statement posted yesterday on its site. Facebook made the changes after members signed online petitions.'Users will have clear options in ongoing notifications to either delete or publish,' the statement said."

For some, damage has been done. Over at Blognation USA, Mark Orchant wrote (the same day as The Globe and Mail news report) "And now there’s increasing evidence that Facebook Beacon, their ill-considered advertising engine (or is it their privacy invasion engine?) is potentially a new vector for so-called affiliate marketers, spammers, scammers, and other vermin to gain access to unsuspecting users. Worse, it turns out that protecting yourself from this new attack by trying to leave Facebook is no easy task." (See Jay Goldman's deconstruction of Facebook's javascript.)

I find something naive about the underlying expectation that the company Facebook -- and other social network organizations -- will not try to find ways to monetize their assets. They are social platforms AND businesses . . . and probably businesses first. Providing and maintaining a social network used by millions, keeping it lively, fresh and increasingly scalable, costs, well, a lot. There is nothing wrong with exploring the boundaries of commerce in any online platform and waiting to see if anything bites back.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that people are very protective about their social networks and only have so much tolerance for product pitches, even less for incursions on privacy and none for automatic opting-in approaches. The principle of 'permission' in online relationships is inviable.

Of course, the irony of social networks, like any network of individuals in a democracy, is that they are super tools for organizing dissent and opposition.  To Facebook's credit, it listened and acted appropriately.

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