05/24/2010

Facebook's signals getting lost in the noise

In his op-ed today, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg promised further changes to give users better control of privacy settings.  It’s a clear signal that Facebook is seeking to meet user privacy preferences while still attracting enough ad revenue to keep the site free for everyone.  But will these signals even be heard above all the noise made by Facebook’s critics?

Radio engineers speak in terms of signal-to-noise ratio when they want to measure usable signals against a background of useless static. There’s been a lot of noise over Facebook recently, driven by a feeding frenzy of technology bloggers and journalists. 

Their hyperbole hit a high note when some equated Facebook’s privacy drill to BP’s giant oil spill, while others wrote articles (or op-eds? It’s so hard to tell sometimes) that insult Facebook employees and impugn their motives.  Just when you think nothing could rival the noise of Washington’s echo chamber, the technology pundits show us how a real shout-down is supposed to work.

All this noise threatens to overwhelm any music Facebook is trying to make.  Facebook is a lot like the conductor of a symphony orchestra of users, advertisers, developers, and publishers.   It has to attract users with features and a growing network of friends and groups, while respecting their privacy preferences.  Facebook must also get advertisers to pay enough to make the service free to users.   They also help entrepreneurs to develop and host new applications.  And recently the Facebook symphony added a new section for content publishers serving customized news, which just might be the lifeline that mainstream media is looking for.

Now, Facebook isn’t a NetChoice member, but it’s obvious I’m a big fan of the site.   I’ve also watched other game-changing web platforms – like Google– go through similar challenges when they modified privacy settings on new services.  And as a Facebook user, I like granular control over what I share with whom, but I’ll admit that it’s confusing how they’ve mapped my old preferences to the new settings.

Still, I’m glad to see that Facebook leadership sees the importance of telegraphing their actions and responding to user concerns.  But this exercise is obviously not entirely about signals of user concern.  After all, 400 million users have already signaled that they are pretty comfortable with Facebook. 

The noise we hear now is instigated in large part by ‘Chicken Little’ critics who earn their funding and prestige by scaring the living bits out of the general public.  In one telling statement, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy actually thanked Facebook for helping to boost contributions to his organization.  

Even Senators with a love for the limelight have jumped on the bandwagon by telling Facebook how to manage a service it gives us for free.  But I think we can all agree that management by a  Congressional Committee is the fastest way to suck innovation and competitiveness out of one of America’s fastest growing industries.

Feeding frenzy and opportunism aside, I hope that Facebook comes out of this episode with a better understanding of how to listen and interact with its loyal user community when changes occur.  That’s good, since there will inevitably be more changes ahead for social networking business models.  

While Facebook is trying to conduct a complex symphony among users, advertisers, developers, and publishers, we shouldn’t let positive signals be drowned out by privacy cat-calls coming from critics in the audience.

–Steve DelBianco

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