Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Guest Post: Can Facebook Unring The Privacy Bell?

Posted by Guest Writer - June 2, 2010

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J.R. Johnson is founder and CEO of Lunch.com (http://lunch.com), a social media platform focused on finding common ground. He grew VirtualTourist.com and OneTime.com to successful companies that recently sold to Expedia.

by J.R. Johnson

Remember when Facebook was called the "walled garden" because it felt so nicely protected from the outside world?

Privacy was core to Facebook's original success and brand identity. Recently though, the social media giant has begun to dramatically open up its users' information to be more public. The topic has earned a Time magazine cover and sparked active debate over their "real" agenda for privacy with everyone from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. Facebook's attempts to quell the backlash, resulted in 50 privacy settings with 170 options, which are now getting yet another makeover.

At this point, the number of privacy controls is actually irrelevant.

When you start as an open platform right out of the gate, expectations are set and clear. However, when you invite people into a walled garden and then start taking those walls down, that creates a fundamental change to the basic definition of your product.

The Catch: Facebook's Product Is Produced By Its Consumers

These privacy changes can have such a chilling effect on contribution to Facebook, that the resulting product can be comparable to Budweiser deciding to sell only non-alcoholic beer.

While Budweiser is the producer of their product and we, the public, are the consumers, Facebook is different because we are both the consumers of the product and the producers. This means the product itself is at stake. Not because people will leave Facebook entirely (though we've seen a few high profile Internet mavens make that move already). Rather, people will simply ... hesitate.

For example, they may hesitate before updating a new cell phone number, wondering who might see it; "liking" a new TV show, if they're not that committed to it yet; or posting vacation photos, letting potential strangers know we're not home.

As soon as that happens, then for all of us "consumers" on Facebook, our stream of personal entertainment and information just got a little less interesting. The best content on Facebook, the product that keeps users coming back to the site, might not be there anymore. We'll no longer have the same product.

We'll have non-alcoholic Bud.

First Self-Inflicted Demise in Social Networking?

Myspace overtook Friendster by building a faster and more scalable product. Facebook then supplanted Myspace, again because it was a better product. Privacy was the biggest differentiator in that case, and people flocked to it.

What's so interesting here, is that no one actually beat Facebook with a more innovative product. If they're unseated, it will be death by their own hand.

The more intertwined with the concept of privacy the Facebook brand becomes, the more the product will change, regardless of any privacy settings they may offer. It will be an erosion rather than an exodus, but the outcome could be just as detrimental.

Facebook has bounced back from past growing pains before, like allowing non-university users in, changing the newsfeed, and the Beacon debacle, among others. Some changes stuck, and some were rolled back.

In the case of privacy though, I'm not so sure that's a bell that they can un-ring.

For the sake of social media's future, and how much better it will be if transparency prevails, I sincerely hope Facebook can figure this out. I'm just afraid that every time we hear a friend, the media, and especially Facebook itself, talk about privacy, the bell gets rung yet again.

The Big Picture

If privacy was at the root of their success, why would Facebook even consider changing course to open things up?

I believe Facebook's intentions are actually very valid. Mark Zuckerberg believes in the power of connecting people around the world and all the potential good that can result. His stance seems to be that if we all open up a little bit and get comfortable sharing things about ourselves more openly, the world will be a better place.

Personally, I share these beliefs, and have since I was 15. My approach with my current company is actually based on very similar values, seeking to uncover people's points of common ground in order to help us all become more thoughtful and tolerant.

I believe this is really important work, so ultimately I'm rooting for Facebook. Though they'll have to pull off a branding Houdini like we've never seen before.

Please see:
Lunch.com - A Platform For Critical Thinkers . . . And A Spiritual Mission - SVW



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