Q2 2010 Quick Links Part 3 (Special Facebook Edition)

By Eric Goldman

It’s been an exciting quarter for Facebook, which earned its own special quick links edition. I’ve also been prompted to take a step back and reassess my relationship with Facebook.

From about 2007 through 2009, I really loved Facebook. It was a valuable tool that allowed me to do things I wanted to do and talk with people I wanted to talk with. As a result, during that time, Facebook was an essential part of my daily routine.

Then, something went wrong. It wasn’t really one single thing, but rather the accumulation of a series of missteps. For example, I was highly irritated that Instant Personalization required me to opt-out in FOUR different places. I’m a highly educated man and a reasonably sophisticated Internet user, but I couldn’t be sure if I had done everything required to completely opt out. That’s terrible.

Perhaps the last straw was this New York Times interview with Elliot Schrage of Facebook, which caused me to do a double-take when I saw this gaffe:

[Reader Q:] “Why not simply set everything up for opt-in rather than opt-out?…”

[Schrage answer:] “Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice….”

What??? Sorry, but I’m going to have to call BULLSHIT on that. This is one of those “black-is-white” word twists that practically begs for an FTC enforcement action. It’s true that I “opted in” to voluntarily create a Facebook account, and it’s also true that I voluntarily participate in the service. However, it is not true that I therefore have “opted in” to every subsequent product choice Facebook makes, ESPECIALLY WHEN FACEBOOK CHANGES how it handles user data. A user does not “opt-in” to a new product change unless the user knowingly and affirmatively assents to the change—which Facebook didn’t solicit, especially when it launched Instant Personalization on an opt-out basis. As a result, I have to assume that Schrage’s response was either knowingly disingenuous or unbelievably naïve. Either way, I don’t really want to spend a lot of time with a service that doesn’t understand something as fundamental as the proper definition of “opt -in.”

So Schrage is right that I can choose to participate in the service, and I’m largely choosing not to. Three examples:

1) I used to have my profile fully public–and therefore fully indexable in the search engines–but I have since changed my profile to be visible only to friends. I’m not trying to keep secrets or maintain a dual persona; in fact, I don’t say anything different on Facebook than I would say elsewhere. I just don’t want Facebook to get my indexable content or any link love.

2) I have reengaged my Twitter-to-Facebook API so that my Twitter posts automatically populate to the Facebook newsfeed, which further reduces my visits to Facebook.

3) I used to read my newsfeed pretty religiously and comment on other folks’ posts routinely, but I rarely do that now. I had already reduced my commenting after a previous Facebook product change automatically posted my comments to my newsfeed despite my explicit opt-out of such postings.

Personally, I think this is how Facebook is going to go down. It’s not going out in a fiery blaze of mass account deletions. Instead, it will atrophy from the collective but individual decisions of people choosing to spend less time on Facebook and spend that time elsewhere. (I talk about this disengagement phenomenon in the context of virtual worlds here). That’s certainly what I’m doing. Indeed, there is some evidence that Facebook’s traffic is plateauing, so perhaps I’m not the only disengaging user. This is why new account signups aren’t the right measure of Facebook’s success any more, especially when the new accounts are coming from late adopters like my mom and my mother-in-law (both recent signups), both of whom have no idea what to do with their accounts and are not actually engaging in the service.

When Facebook reaches the negative tipping point, no one will go there because no one else is posting interesting content—a self-reinforcing downward spiral. As a prime example, I still have my Orkut and Friendster accounts, but I can’t imagine why I would go back because neither services offers any interesting content to me. Similarly, Facebook may become a virtual depopulated ghost town with interesting relics.

Other interesting links regarding Facebook’s imbroglio from last quarter:

* EFF: Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy: A Timeline.

* “How Do I Delete My Facebook Account” is a popular search, which has led to bonus traffic for wikiHow’s web page on the topic. However, as I said, I don’t expect mass account deletions; mass account disuse is much more likely.

* Chris Kelly, Facebook’s former Chief Privacy Officer, disavowed himself from Facebook’s product changes as part of his unsuccessful candidacy for California attorney general. I’m hear you, Chris, but maybe could you tell us a little more about Beacon…wasn’t that on your watch??? The NYT recaps how Kelly’s Facebook background was a mixed bag for his campaign.

* EFF: Facebook should follow its own principles.

* CNET’s retrospective on some of Facebook’s missteps over the years. One they missed: Facebook v. Power.com. I am not entirely sympathetic to Power.com based on existing legal doctrine. However, the whole lawsuit would be completely unnecessary if Facebook provided a bona fide tool that lets users port their own data off Facebook—something Facebook has shown zero interest in doing. (Recall, for example, the Facebook representative painfully ducking the data portability question at the FTC’s Berkeley privacy workshop).

* Facebook’s product crisis caused an internal rift among Facebook execs.

A couple of other Facebook tidbits from the last quarter:

* Facebook’s automated “Community Page” generator is leading to some wacky results for law firms.

* NYT: High school students are changing their Facebook names to aliases during college admission season.