Facebook recently unveiled several changes to its service that give users more sharing options, but in the process the company demonstrated what many have come to believe is its intentional disregard for user privacy.
This mistake feels a lot like Facebook's February 2009 debacle when the company changed its user agreement in an "all take, no give" arrangement that gave the company the right to use, in perpetuity, all information shared by its users on the site. Users rebelled and Facebook backed down immediately.
But this time it's different. With these recent updates, Facebook has given users two important things: Easier ways to share and participate among communities of interest within the network and more privacy and protection settings to accommodate this new structure.
Facebook's mistake is two-fold. First, the default privacy settings for the new Facebook are not Friends, Friends of Friends, or all of Facebook, but the entire Internet. Second, Facebook has provided no easy road map for just how to navigate to the 50 privacy settings in order to choose from among the more than 170 privacy options.
Users' confusion over the default settings and how to change them, along with lackluster explanations of the benefits of the new changes, has created the usual uproar we've come to expect each time Facebook tweaks our home away from home.
Unfortunately for Facebook, this update has also created what analysts suspect is an increase in the number of users wanting to delete their Facebook accounts. The number of searches for "how do i delete my facebook account [sic]" have increased dramatically since the changes were announced, and a mass exodus from Facebook has been scheduled for May 31.
Nothing On the Web Is Free
Facebook has over 400 million users, and after the mass exodus, the site will have over 400 million users.
The changes Facebook has made are part of Facebook's inevitable monetizing strategy. And that's the point. Nothing about Facebook is free. Facebook has never been in the game not to make money. And it's finally doing so. This year the company is expected to have revenues of between $1.2 and $2 billion. And yes, some of that will be profit.
Facebook will ultimately strike the necessary balance between its bottom line and its users. They always do. But what users have to realize is that one fact will remain: Facebook will make money off of the information users share on its site.
To those for whom this is a bad thing, Facebook is not the place to be. Profile information is the most valuable information for marketers on the Web, and no single Web service has more of this type of information than Facebook. Facebook will continue along its path to use this information to make money in order to stay in business and to continue to give users the services they sign up for in droves.
The critics are right: Facebook wants to make mountains of cash. But they can only do it if its users are happy.
The Wild Wild Web
A lot of the information you share on Facebook - your email address, phone number, physical address - is already public on the web and would remain so if Facebook went away tomorrow. This information was there before Facebook and exists online independently of Facebook.
Take a look at Pipl.com. Type in your name or the name of your best friend, or your worst enemy, and see what pops up. A recent search on this writer's name produced the following information:
Contact details from Whitepages.com, Spokeo.com, and two others
Background reports from Intelius.com
Personal profiles from MySpace, Spokeo, LinkedIn, Members-Base, Bebo and Flickr
Email addresses from Inelius that are so old I caught myself wanting to say they pre-date the Web
Public records including birth records from BirthDetails.com and Intelius
Videos from YouTube
Many sites like this have emerged over the years. Pipl, Spokeo and Zillow.com, to name a few, all publish information many users feel is private. But in fact, it is not. It's quite public, and sites like these aggregate this information from public sources.
Which leads to a not-so-recent trend in social media, but one that is about to see the roof blow off because of yet another new initiative by Facebook.
The trend is social media aggregation, where information from different social media sites is pulled together in one location so that it can be more easily digested. Many aggregation services, like Gist, FriendFeed and NetVibes, offer tools and widgets that let users combine messages, search multiple social media sites at once, track friends, and even access their profile data all from one place, all in an attempt to simplify an individual's social media participation.
With the recent introduction of Open Graph, Facebook will attempt to take social aggregation into the stratosphere. In fact, Facebook wants to turn the entire Web into your personal aggregator.
Currently, different social media sites contribute to some part of the social graph. Yelp is mapping out the part of the graph that connects people to local businesses. Pandora is mapping out the part related to music. With Open Graph, Facebook plans to bring these graphs together.
"If we can take these separate maps of the graph and pull them all together," says Zuckerberg, as reported by CNET.com, "then we can create a Web that's smarter, more social, more personalized, and more semantically aware."
He goes on to say, "These connections aren't just happening on Facebook, they're happening all over the Web, and today with the Open Graph we're bringing all these things together."
If you use Facebook, you might be surprised to find you're already participating in its new social graph. Go to Account > Privacy Settings and click on Applications and Websites. There you'll see Instant Personalization Pilot Program. Click on it to see the beginnings of a monumental change on the Web.
Good Rules of Thumb
Just consider that anything you say on Facebook is public, and don't say anything that you would have to whisper to anyone whom you're dining with at an outdoor cafe.
Other sites offering FacebookConnect are safe. FacebookConnect is a service that lets users enjoy their Facebook relationships on other websites. Users can sign in with their Facebook username and password and discover what their friends find interesting on a particular site. The third-party website does not have access to your Facebook profile information.
Ian Huckabee is a writer and web marketing strategist. He creates social media marketing programs and solutions for organizations and individuals, and he specializes in integrating social media marketing with search engine marketing. He's an avid tweeter and enjoys creating short bursts of fiction 140-characters at a time.