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.