The wonderful horrible life of Facebook users and their data (or, “data hogs get slaughtered”)

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{ pig in mud by Farmfoto }

Doc has an important post today that reflects on data and privacy. The post comes back to Marc Canter’s “but it’s our daaaaaatttttaaaaaa dudeeeeeeeessss riggggggggghhhhttt?!?!?!!!!!!” question that we’ve been hearing at tech conferences going on three years now.

All of this comes up because Facebook has done three things that are at once extremely innovative, extremely rude, extremely helpful, and extremely disconcerting:

1. They are collecting and republishing user data on a level not before seen by users.

2. They are allowing advertisers to use this data to reach these users.

3. They are not giving this information–information that has put their value at $15 billion–back to their users.

Depending on who you are, or what your goals are at a particular time, you might find extreme pleasure or discomfort in each of these. Let’s look at some examples.

Marketers vs. Customers

If you’re making a product that would appeal to folks who play the video Guitar Hero and you want to market it then you have a couple of choices today. First, you could buy the keyword “guitar hero” (or related ones) on a search engine like Google. That’s very cool, obviously because you know the person’s intent at that very moment. Second, you could buy ads on a blog about video games like That’s cool because you know the demographics of the folks who read that blog are the top 20% of video game users (the meme spreaders).

Facebook looks at those two systems and says to the marketer “what if we had a list of folks who opted in to receive information about Guitar Hero? Would you be interested in that?” Well, of course you would! In fact, I did and here is what it looks like:

The ads don’t perform well on a clickthrough basis because they are one of 100 very compelling clicks that users can pick from on their Facebook page (i.e. your messages, applications, wall, etc). However, Facebook charges on a per-click basis so it’s not the marketer’s issue.

Now, this is not revolutionary as Zuckerberg stated in his fabulous claim that “every 100 years media changes.” Yes Zuck, the printing press and then Facebook are the two milestones to date (forget about radio, TV, and the internet, as well as “smaller” innovations like wikipedia, cable, and blogs). However, what Facebook is doing is less revolution and more the evolution of direct marketing which has moved from offline to optin email lists and on to search advertising (i.e. Google AdWords).

The only problem with Facebook’s opt-in advertising system is that the users who they are selling to marketers didn’t really opt-in. What they did do was fill out a profile in which they said they “liked Guitar Hero,” not that they “would like to get Guitar Hero” advertising.

Subtle difference, but an important one.

Somewhere in the fine print I’m sure Facebook is letting people know that they are being sliced and diced, but if you ask 1,000 Facebook users if they opted into this list 1,000 would tell you no. That’s the real test: user awareness.

Ask yourself: Did you fill out your profile in order to be sold to marketers?

In fact, that’s why we’re having a problem right now: people feel Facebook collected data under false pretense and that makes people feel REALLY betrayed.

Did Facebook break the law? I doubt it, but they certainly screwed up the messaging–which is what they did the last time when they did the big data reveal… which brings us to the second issue.

The user to user data problem.

Users gave their info to Facebook but never thought it would be shared and disseminated so efficiently. Every day we watch folks set their status from married, to dating, to single, and the other assorted states of couple-ness. At the start no one knew this information was broadcast to everyone else’s walls and today probably half the people know this happens.

There is massive power locked up in data and like a time-bomb it takes a deft hand to deal with it.

Facebook stood their ground the last time and made users deal with the issue, and their probably going to do the same this time.

The final issue: getting my information back.

Which brings us to the final issue: why does Facebook make billions off my data and I can’t even have it back? Where is the export feature in Facebook? How do I export ALL MY DATA to an XML feed or CSV file and shut down my Facebook account?

If Facebook wanted to solve a lot of their problems they would put an export key on their profile pages that just gave a raw dump of all your data. Your photos, your friendships, your wall posts, and your messages.

Just like Ning, Yahoo/GMAIL email, and countless other services provide.

Facebook has the best developers in the world building their product. They add features at a pace like no other company *including* Google. They could build an export feature in five days–but they won’t.


Facebook is pushing themselves into a position of being viewed as ungrateful data hogs: amassing tons of information, selling it under false pretense, and not sharing it with the folks who gave it to them.

Not good.

You can get away with this kind of behavior for a short period of time, but not for the long run. There are just too many folks out there like Doc, Dave Winer, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, Steve Gillmor, and Leo Laporte out there today who will call you on it.

Again it comes back to bloggers and their influence of the marketplace… I love it. 🙂

The message from bloggers to Facebook is clear: if you’re a hog you’ll be slaughtered.

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