Tapping at the window

Spying is best done surreptitiously. The Peeping Tom that you don’t see is of infinitely less concern to you than the one who taps on your window and waves. With its new Beacon ad program, Facebook taps on the window.

Nate Weiner reports on his first experience coming face to face with Facebook’s Peeping Tom:

So here I am, burning some brain cells and taking some time to relax playing a game on Kongregate, when a little window pops up in the corner of my screen and says “Kongregate is sending this to your Facebook profile: Nate played Desktop Tower Defense 1.5 at Kongregate.” Which immediately elicited a “Hellll no” from my mouth.

Weiner, I’m sure, knows that his movements online are routinely tracked. What’s unacceptable is that the tracker has suddenly made its presence known. The Peeping Tom has come out of the shadows – and he can’t wait to tell your friends what he’s seen.

What we’ve learned from the commercialization of the Web is that people are more than happy to exchange their privacy for free stuff and greater convenience as long as you allow them to maintain the fiction that their activities are not being monitored and recorded. As Chris Messina recently said, “To date, many people still maintain their illusion of privacy” – and that illusion has been an important shield for advertisers looking to collect ever more intimate information about us and for the many Internet companies that act as their enablers.

In breaking that illusion, Facebook is taking a big risk. It may set off a rebellion among its users, who up until now have felt comfortable cavorting behind Facebook’s walls. But Facebook probably had little choice. Studies show that the members of social networks are largely oblivious to banner ads and other traditional advertising. If it’s ever going to actual make some real money, Facebook has to break through the indifference of its users – and that means capitalizing on both the rich personal data it collects and the “friendships” it cements. It needs to send tailored commercial messages along the trusted communications pathways that already exist within the site. The only way it can do that is to start tapping on its members’ windows.

In some ways, it’s baffling that Facebook would be so brazen in launching its privacy-trampling ad scheme with such great fanfare and arrogance – in the same week, no less, that Congress took up the issue of online advertising and privacy. It wasn’t so long ago that the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, set off a modest member rebellion by introducing Facebook’s News Feed service, which automatically sends reports on members’ activities to their networks of friends. After a burst of criticism, Zuckerberg offered an apology and gave members the ability to control what went into their feeds.

You’d think that experience might have led Zuckerberg to think twice before making a big to-do about unveiling Social Ads and Beacon. But I think Zuckerberg learned a very different lesson from the News Feed experience. After all, the News Feeds didn’t go away, and Zuckerberg actually scored some goodwill points with his apology. I think what Zuckerberg learned was this: If you’re going to push the privacy limit, then push it as far as you can. If users get upset, take a tiny step backwards and point to that tiny step as evidence that you’ve “listened to the community.” If you go through this three-steps-forward-one-step-back routine enough times, you’ll be able to get everything you want while your users will be able to maintain the illusion that they’re in control.

Privacy is lost not in one great flood but rather through steady erosion. Eventually, the Peeping Tom taps on your window and waves, and you don’t recoil in horror and embarrassment. You wave back.

7 thoughts on “Tapping at the window

  1. yish

    FaceBook’s strategy may be genius, or it may be bonkers. I’m betting on bonkers – and praying for it too. Yes, privacy is dead, it has been for a while now. But this is taking it to an extreme. There an old line from an old radio sketch that comes to mind: yes, everyone pisses in the pool, but they don’t do it from the top of the jumping board.

    Google has been serving me ads tailored for my behaviour for ages. Whether it’s adsense or the little clips on my gmail. Amazon tells me that people who bought this book also liked that one. The big difference is that whatever is personal, stays personal. No one tells my friends what I bought unless I do.

    Mr. Zuckerberg thinks we’re ready to cross that bridge: hand over whatever is left of our dignity to the noble cause of making corporates richer. It kinda makes sense with the MS deal. Funny, how the same people who will go to great lengths to protect “their” intellectual property (read: DRM) are so eager to violate ours.

    The irony is that FaceBook will fail, but not because the masses will awake. It will fail for the same reason that Friendster, Yahoo360 and so many of its predecessors failed: our short span of attention, and our low tolerance of bad products. And let’s say it once and for all: FaceBook is a crap product. Don’t give me the 800M users can’t all be wrong. They’re not. They came, had some fun, and will soon move on to something new. Why? Because FB gives you very little in terms of actual social value. Ok, you threw a fish at me, I joined your save the penguins cause. Now what? What does FB give me, in terms of managing my life, that email doesn’t? In fact, in most cases – it’s just a pain compared to email. Even the big API hoo-ha turned out to be an embarrassment. The only FB applications that carry any weight are those that point you to external services, like Zoho. Believe me, I’ve tried them.

    Now google, that’s a different story. I can communicate with my friends with gmail, share document and edit them collaboratively, coordinate social activities with my calender and mailing lists. And you know what? I don’t mind their targeted ads, because their targeting actually works: most of the content that gets pushed my way is actually of interest (compare FB: I’m still getting dating ads. Please someone tell them I’m in a relationship, been happily in one for decades. Oh – that’s on my profile).

    Mr. Zuckerberg is a genius social engineer, but as a software engineer he sucks. He was smart to start with college kids and expand upwards. He rode the wave of carnival for a year, now the party’s over. Which is why he’s resorting to hysterical business strategies.

  2. Tom Lord

    Yish (and Nick),

    I like Yish’s theme of our “short span of attention” and actually think that’s worth looking behind:

    I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think hoi poloi has a short span of attention — not in the slightest. Everyone I know, from all walks of life, is deeply immeshed in many complex activities and engagements that span days, weeks, months, and years of their lives. And just about everyone I know can concentrate for long periods of time on any one activity — if that activity is important to them.

    And that’s the rub: hoi poloi has a short attention span for things that are mildly interesting, but ultimately completely unimportant to their lives.

    Which brings us to social networking services — not only unimportant but invasive and dangerous. The backlash will be fun to watch.

    We should take bets: how many months will it be before Zuckerberg, frustrated at the performance of some aspect of his business, blurts out something that amounts to “the user’s aren’t doing what they’re supposed to”.


  3. alan

    Your point Tom “– if that activity is important to them” is right on the mark.

    The Unit Structures commentary that Nicholas linked to in his post pointed to one crucial element, “Privacy is both qualitative and quantitative.” The qualitative experience is a complicated thing to pull apart but deeply connected to each individual’s biography. But it is the engine that makes us want to connect to content and gives the added push to dig or persist!

    I can’t agree Tom that social networking services are unimportant though.

    Unless I misunderstand you how could such a radical paradigm shift, not the services as such but that such large numbers of people that are participating, not indicate a changing generational need!

    One question I have is about the different needs of a contemporary generation from, shall I call my generation mature participants?

    Are young adults really worried about the privacy issues, as much as we appear to be?


  4. yish

    Indeed, short span of attention to the frivolous. Its fun for a while, and that while is getting shorter and shorter. Hence the shift from blogs to lifestreams.

    Social networks are anything but unimportant. They are probably our sole evolutionary advantage. But not all services are equal. Try posting a question on LinkedIn, and you get 20 high-quality answers. Try facebook, and you get 15 bad jokes.

    FaceBook assumes its users are bored and looking for new ways to waste their time. Or at best, busy people looking for a few minutes of distraction. Its whole design shouts this. There’s no facility to manage contacts and conversations, aggregate knowledge or archive important bits.

    And judging by the amount of activity, they got it right: there are lots of us out there looking for a bit of amusement. But you know what? Pretty soon we’ll be bored of FB too, and take our boredom elsewhere.

    I don’t think young people are less concerned about their privacy or image. I think they are simply more sophisticated in managing it. Disclosing embarrassing snapshots of yourself might be careless, but it may be a clever campaign of self promotion (does the name Brittany Spears ring a bell?).

  5. Leighton Cooke

    Yish is right about the usefulness of Gmail and Google. The advantage of Facebook is that you know your friends on there in the real world. Yet in recent weeks it’s become a bit of a vampire’s nest which I think is people’s way of saying it’s getting creepy. I’ve asked the Wales ICO to investigate the privacy issue (I live in Cardiff) and I’m waiting for their response. Privacy is not dead. It just needs defending from the vampires, real and imagined.

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