Facebook Croons New Tune, But Song Remains the Same

Bruce Nussbaum, a former assistant managing editor at Business Week who now serves as a professor at Parsons School of Design, makes the argument that some of Facebook’s current privacy-related woes stem from its inability to remain attuned to cultural changes affecting its audience.

I’m not sure whether I buy the argument in its entirety, partly because Facebook long ago left behind its singular focus and dependence on college and high-school kids. Still, two brief sentences in Nussbaum’s blog post at Harvard Business Review are undeniably true:

At the moment, it (Facebook) has an audience that is at war with its advertisers. Not good.

No, it’s not good. But, as I argued early last year, Facebook was destined to be in conflict with its audience. The outcome was inevitable, resulting from Facebook’s inability or unwillingness to be transparent about the specifics of its business model and its exploitative relationship with its audience.

Facebook was neither forthcoming nor honest. Then, as now, Facebook continues to play a cynical game with those who use its service. It continues to lead them to believe they incur no downside for using a nominally free service. Then, as subscribers drop their guards, Facebook exacts a price, furtively dismantling privacy protections and trading on the sorts of sliced and diced demographic data that advertisers crave.

Now, as Facebook goes through another privacy overhaul, promising to make amends for what has become a pattern of deception and dishonesty, subscribers to the service ought to recall a hackneyed admonition about violated trust: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. (George W. Bush emphasized a variation on this theme, you might remember.)

The truth is, Facebook can’t change. It’s too late. It’s caught in the bind I described in that blog post back in early 2009. Still, even though Facebook is ensnared in a trap of its own design, its audience doesn’t have to go along for the ride.

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2 responses to “Facebook Croons New Tune, But Song Remains the Same

  1. Bruce Nussbaum’s claims about users being “at war” with advertisers is just nonsense. The users are upset with Facebook, not with advertisers. Facebook is not making changes based on pressure from advertisers: if the advertisers were really pulling the strings over there you’d see all sorts of intrusive animated crap like you see on Yahoo and MySpace and elsewhere and that isn’t happening on Facebook.

    You keep repeating vague insinuations about how Facebook makes money such as “furtively dismantling privacy protections and trading on the sorts of sliced and diced demographic data that advertisers crave.” I wish you’d be explicit about what you think Facebook is doing.

    Facebook’s advertising business doesn’t require them to share data with anyone else. Advertisers provide Facebook with ads and targeting requests (“only show my ad to males in Wisconsin between the ages of 18 and 25 who are are fans of Mexican Wrestling”) and then Facebook targets the ads to those users. Facebook does not share the user identities or other user information with advertisers. The decision about which specific ads to show to each specific user is made by Facebook acting upon parameters set by the advertisers, not by the advertisers themselves so the advertisers get the targeting they want and the user data can stay private inside Facebook.

    This is a very lucrative business. It does not involve selling information to anyone. It’s not controversial with almost anyone who really understands it, and it’s no different in principle than what most newspaper websites do when they ask you to provide demographic info where you register. It’s just the Facebook has a whole lot more data about each user than anyone else does, enabling more targeting specificity.

    None of the changes that provoked the recent privacy brouhaha enhanced this business directly in any way, but appear instead to be designed to increase Facebook’s footprint across the web and thus pull in more targeting information, more users (via increased exposure to Facebook and value of having an account), and more page views on facebook.com on which highly targeted advertising can be displayed.

  2. I don’t want this site to become “all Facebook, all the time.” I just don’t want to spend that much energy on it.

    What I will say, however, is that Facebook, just last week, was caught sharing personal subscriber data with advertisers without receiving the prior, express consent of affected subscribers.

    Generally, that’s Facebook’s modus operandi: furtive attempts to erode privacy and to gain greater leverage for its data-mining initiatives, followed by apologies and backtracking, then followed by repeated furtive attempts to erode privacy further. At this point, Facebook has established an undeniable pattern of dishonest and opaque dealings with its users. It’s a relationship of convenience and chronic exploitation.

    That’s why I would contend that Facebook truly cannot be trusted. How many times must an organization violate trust before it becomes untrustworthy? Whatever that number, Facebook has passed the threshold.

    Why is Facebook congenitally unable to level with its subscribers? Why are true openness (not the abused, fuzzy concepts of Internet “openness,” but openness as in candidness and frankness) and transparency so hard for Facebook to deliver? What’s it trying to hide, and why?

    You say Facebook already is in a lucrative business, and perhaps that’s true. But I don’t think Zuckerberg and the company’s financial backers are content with what they have. We already know that they have displayed a pattern of saying one thing and doing another. You want us to trust them to do the right thing? Right for whom?

    You should watch that George W. Bush video. He offers some guidance on not allowing others to fool you repeatedly.

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