Friday, November 23, 2007

The True Colors of Facebook

Hopefully, anyone still entertaining serious thoughts about a role for Facebook in an enterprise software suite has been tracking (pun intended) the consequences of the latest marketing strategy implemented by the social networking company. Here is some background leading up to the current state of play as reported by Anick Jesdanun and Rachel Metz of the Associated Press:

Facebook has long prided itself on guarding its users' privacy, but the walls have gradually lowered. In 2006, a "news feeds" feature allowing users to track changes friends make to profiles backfired when many users denounced it as stalking and threatened protests. Facebook quickly apologized and agreed to let users turn off the feature.

The new program lets companies tap ongoing conversations by alerting users about friends' activities through the feeds. About 40 Web sites have decided to embed a free tool from Facebook, known as a Beacon, to enable the marketing feeds.

This has led to the following conditions:

Some users of the online hangout Facebook are complaining that its two-week-old marketing program is publicizing their purchases for friends to see.

Those users say they never noticed a small box that appears on a corner of their Web browsers following transactions at Fandango, Overstock and other online retailers. The box alerts users that information is about to be shared with Facebook unless they click on "No Thanks." It disappears after about 20 seconds, after which consent is assumed.

Users are given a second notice the next time they log on to Facebook, but they can easily miss it if they quickly click away to visit a friend's page or check e-mail.

In other words users can opt out of this marketing system, but they have to be very alert to do so. Furthermore, as the AP team noted, they can only do this on a site-by-site basis. This is likely to lead to an "arms race" among the commercial sites over who can come up with the most clever ways of concealing the "No Thanks" box without overtly eliminating it.

In attempting to identify just who is responsible for this current state of affairs, the AP reporters ran into what has become the usual "nobody's fault" syndrome. In this particular case Fandango referred them to Facebook, which defended its strategy emphasizing that it was through advertising that they could offer their service free of charge. Thus, the only real result has been a well-written report about how a new sector of the Internet population is learning about consequences.

All this leads me to wonder just where JP Rangaswami is over at confused of calcutta when it comes to the consequences of deploying Facebook in an enterprise setting. I have already take issue with one of the longer poles in his tent:

Facebook is not a “social networking” site. It is a community of communities. Now this is potentially of immense value in an enterprise, if we use it sensibly.

At the time he made this claim, I focused my attention of how specious his reasoning about communities was. Now we see that, whatever his logic may have been, Facebook, itself, really does not care. Facebook is a business, like any other, which means that their highest (only?) priority is revenue. They see this as an opportunity to beef up their revenue, provided they get a few bugs out of the system. Unfortunately, in an enterprise setting, those bugs are likely to reveal more than buying preferences; they are a new source of data that can be mined for espionage intelligence, opening a fault line on the playing field where competitive advantages are determined. In other words it was not just the JP fumbled the basic ontological nature of communities but that, in his fumble, he neglected to account for the extent to which different communities may compete with each other.

This has been a sobering experience for me. I used to read confused of calcutta because it prompted me to new ways of thinking about the role of the social world in enterprise operations, particularly when technology is involved in those operations. Now I am beginning to read it as just another blog, where the gut-level faith of the author can soar blithely above the hard evidence of reason. I have grown tired of that game and no longer wish to play it. Using such sites as a venue for trying to move enterprise software to a better place is a losing battle. These days I feel it is more important to dispense with the Kool-Aid of technology evangelism and track the news for the sake of issuing "early warnings" to defend against the next forays that those enterprises will make in trying to run our lives!

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