Facebook's gamble is, to be kind, sinister

As a student of life, culture and media, little surprises me anymore and especially when it involves humankind’s propensity to greed. Much of the reaction to the Microsoft/Facebook announcement yesterday is making my caution flags ripple unfurled in the wind, because it has “greed” written all over it.

An Advertising Age article points to a meeting on November 6th between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg and a select group of advertising executives to “unveil a new way of advertising online.”

Facebook is keeping mum about exactly what it is unveiling at the Nov. 6 event, but ad-industry executives familiar with the company’s plans said the social network is looking to better use the data its users voluntarily offer up on their profiles. Of course, that much seems like a no-brainer (although it’s actually not easy to implement). But less obviously, a couple of industry executives familiar with the company’s plans suggest Facebook could use some of what it knows about people — and their relationships with others on the site, what is known as the “social graph” — to target them off Facebook (emphasis mine) as well.

Shooting targetIf that niggles your privacy concerns, it should. Hell, I’m a Facebook member, and I can guarantee you I don’t want the information I’ve given them — or that they’ve gathered — to be used to serve me ads elsewhere. And I can guarantee you that I’m not alone.

Look, I support behavioral targeting. I think that’s fair game. But to use information I voluntarily gave Facebook to help the targeting process is unethical, to say the least. But again, nothing surprises me when it comes to greed, and Facebook needs to be a bit little lot greedy to support a $15 billion valuation.

Nobody understands this stuff like Dave Morgan of Tacoda. Dave has — in many ways — written the book on behavioral targeting, and he told me via email this morning that like all things new, it’ll take time. He also sounded a cautionary note:

It all depends on whether they give the consumer more value with the ads that they deliver them, and on the core principles of notice, transparency and choice. They have to be very careful about being perceived as creepy. What makes them different than more classic behavioral targeting is the large amount of very personal information that people share with them on Facebook, many times with an expectation — which may be incorrect — that only their friends can see it.

Notice, transparency and choice. For Facebook to live by those principles, its privacy policy is going to need a little overhauling, and the question is will its members fully understand what’s taking place?

Web strategist Jeremiah Owyang doesn’t necessarily think so, because Microsoft — whose “Passport” concept met with significant early backlash from privacy advocates like the Electronic Freedom Foundation — will now have access to personal data through a side door. Here’s what’s at stake, according to Jeremiah:

1) Facebook knows who you are: your name, your gender, where you live, your martial and political status, sexual preference, age, where you work, the list goes on. The funny thing is, you’ve voluntarily given that information up.

2) The Graph: They also know who you connect to, who you talk to, and what you say to them (you don’t own those private message ya know).

3) Gestures: Sure, up to one third of all profile information is bogus, but what about those unsaid gestures: What people do is more important than what they say. What apps you use, how frequent, what and who you click on.

This thing about Facebook is either going to be a new level in the world of targeted media, or it’s going to blow up in Facebook’s, well, face.

I have no problem with Facebook targeting me within its application. By being a member, I’ve given them that option. It’s not inexpensive software to maintain, and the membership is free, so I think it’s a fair trade. But there’s a word for taking the information I’ve given them for that purpose, and using it in any way to validate a ridiculous corporate valuation. It’s called evil.

I’ve written to Facebook to ask what will happen to/with my information, if I cancel my membership. I’ll let you know what they say.

(Thanks to Doc for the link to Jeremiah)


  1. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to claim it’s evil, the deal makes complete sense to them. Let me know if they respond to you (email), I’d be surprised.

    Thanks for the conversation.

  2. To be frank, I’m surprised this is not already in place. I had always assumed that the purpose of social networking sites was so that they could mine intimate data and use it for advertising purposes.

    I would be amazed if this turn of events upset the user base to a degree that a change was effected. Consent on that front is well manufactured.

  3. David, I agree with your assumption about social networking, but Facebook is changing the rules by using my data elsewhere. It’s like revealing parts of your life at a dinner party with friends, only to find they’ve shared them with others and so on. Follow the dots. This is not a good turn of events.

  4. I completely agree that it is a bad turn of events, I am simply surprised that it has not already happened.

    Sharing your information with ‘trusted third parties’ is not new in the marketing world. Perhaps data mining to this level of intimacy is. I’m completely against it and hope that they are dissuaded some how.

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