Serious Doubts About Facebook

At the risk of becoming an all Facebook all the time blog, which I really don’t want to be, I do have a few more things to say before hanging up the FB hat for the week.

Last week, they rolled out “social ads” which will be so delightfully targeted just at us that we won’t even perceive them as ads, they will simply be information. Lest the lack of nonverbal cues fools you, I don’t believe it for a second, ads are ads and I don’t want to see them.

In conjunction with this, they also announced brand sites where a company/celeb/whatever can create a profile, and then instead of becoming a friend of that profile, we, the mere users, can become “fans” of that brand. Yep, that’s right, I can announce to the world that I am a “fan” of Facebook. Or Google. Or, apparently, Neko Case. Label conveniently provided by Facebook. All I have to do is bite and my whole social network can know.

Part of me wants to applaud them for recognizing the distinction between “friend” and “fan.” Part of me wants to appreciate the movement of “fan” from “weirdo who needs a life” to “person who’s into Facebook.” Most of me wants to scream. Why? Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but aside from the fact that its execution seems so lame (as Rob Walker nicely summarizes), it just seems so crassly tied to the advertising piece. It also seems aimed to supplant groups that form around brands and enable a much more top-down form of brand-fan interaction.

Facebook’s overt strategy — enter their “beacon” script that sends info from “affiliate” websites back to Facebook so they can share with our networks (and themselves) what we do on the rest of the web — is to turn all of its users into little viral advertising modules. See Fred Stutzman’s blog for the best coverage of the privacy implications of all that FB has been up to lately. Unsettling, to say the least.

I have really liked Facebook these last several months. It’s been a great way to keep contact with a wide group of people I really like but don’t generally keep up with very well when we’re not at the same meetings. It’s been playful, professional, and entertaining.

But if I end up feeling like all those friends are just advertising parasites using my friends as hosts, and if my activities are just fodder for targeted advertising, then I’m done. If Facebook doesn’t make it really easy and obvious for people to opt out (or better yet opt in) to the “affiliate” program, then I’m done.

I am deeply concerned about the degree to which we are living our personal lives in proprietary spaces that do not belong to us and in which we have no rights, not just Facebook and MySpace, but also roleplaying games (what do you do when you get kicked of World of Warcraft and that’s where your friendship group all hangs out?). The inability to download my own information from really bothers me. The inability to download or export information from Facebook is problematic. But if my social life is going to be all about sending and receiving ads, I want out. And if being a “fan” is going to be reduced to “providing advertising for” I want out.

We need ways to build business models that aren’t just about using people to sell stuff and selling stuff to people. Human connection is worth more than that.

Comments (6) to “Serious Doubts About Facebook”

  1. Interesting article. How would you propose social networks make money? I hate ads too, but the network needs to make money in order to provide the service. Would you advocate a subscription model for people who don’t want to see ads? Would anyone pay not to see ads?

  2. “We need ways to build business models that aren’t just about using people to sell stuff and selling stuff to people. Human connection is worth more than that.”

    Hear hear, Nancy. Couldn’t agree more.


  3. Interesting food for thought. My first awareness of the brand site was noticing one of my friends being listed as a fan of the CBC – which, in Canada, is a positive thing. So I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the ramifications until now.

    I’ve signed up ARCTIC to be its own entity, of course, but I’m wishing I’d known this was coming months ago when I created the Facebook group for ARCTIC. Now I don’t know whether to keep focusing on the existing group or try to convince all our fans to move over to become fans of the “brand”, thus creating confusion and weariness smong the people who we need as our fans.

    A few days ago I was talking with my real-world friends about how we all know, in a way, what Facebook wants to do to us and what they want to use us for, and yet we ignore it all because it’s such a compelling system. I suspect people will put up with a lot more abuse before they start to abandon it. Just look at Myspace – it’s hard to find any actual content between all the advertising, but for some bizarre reason we still use it. We just complain about it more.

  4. I’ve liked the significant difference between Facebook and MySpace. MySpace lets me sign up as a fan and connect with strangers, Facebook allows me to stay in touch with friends.

    Much that happens on Fb is grounded in the real. Facilitating connections with brands or bands must change the nature of the space.

    I must admit to being taken aback by being confronted by advertising for next week’s Australian election – I thought it was one place I’d be safe from electioneering.

  5. Great post, which I accessed via a link from Facebook of course. I’ve been thinking about these kinds of issues as well. Facebook seems to be making the potential of targeted ads more real than other sites which have potential but haven’t really broken through to implementation (I’m thinking of gmail, whose adds are very ignorable, and when perused, quite laughable in some instances). I think the threshold for switching services is probably pretty high, but just like a lot of folks switched from MySpace to Facebook it could happen.I don’t think I’ll get bombarded with a dozen “so and so is a fan of Gucci” messages, but if that did happen I would start looking around at other options, or just buy some Gucci products and fit in with my friends :)

  6. I absolutely agree – but it’s partly the way that the advertising is appearing in the news links that I object to. They really are in your face, and very intrusive. In the latest big Web2.0 success story, Ravelry (for knitters and crocheters), the ads that are starting to appear are placed in a sidebar. I’m sure they are targeted for the content of a page (eg hand-dyed sock yarn in the sidebar of discussions about sock knitting) but you can just not really see it. And, of course, you can assume that people visiting there are interested in purchasing stuff related to their hobby. That’s not the case with facebook.