Apr 252010

Facebook greed: do not like.

In Facebook’s latest quest to make even more money from its users’ personal information, their newest ploy: the perversion of the “Like” button, which previously was an innocent way to give a virtual “thumbs up” to a friend’s comment or photo, without “subscribing” to anything or making a permanent connection. Now, however, that same “Like” button — that Facebook has trained its users to click on so much it expects 1 billion new “Likes” within the first 24 hours — “creates a connection” when used for interests, Fan pages, or other company websites. According to FB, “we believe this change offers you a more light-weight and standard way to connect with people, things and topics in which you are interested.” In other words, they hope to confuse things and trick more people into clicking “Like” because people are used to it, and it sounds better than “Become a Fan” or “Subscribe” or “Let us Track Your Interests.”

The new “Like” button not only extends its reach to Fan pages (which you used to “become a fan” of), but will now pop up all over the web on various company websites. An example FB gives is Levi.com; so, you visit Levi.com and see the ubiquitous FB “Like” button and click it. Assuming you are logged in to your FB account, you have now provided a piece of personal data that FB can sell to Levi’s, Macy’s, or some other jeans competitor. Also, the fact that you “Like” Levi’s now shows up in the “News Feed,” which means that you just spammed all 200 of your friends with an advertisement for Levi’s. Great! Because advertising wasn’t invasive enough, now FB is trying to trick your friends into doing the advertising for them.

In a similar vein, your “Interests” on the “Info” tab of your Facebook profile page are being converted automatically into things that you “Like.” So, if, under activities or interests you put “Unbuttoning my Levi’s and eating at KFC,” you will now be assumed to “Like” Levi’s and KFC. And your name will show up as a “Liker” or “Fan” or “Friend” or “Follower” (or whatever they’ll call it) on the new Levi’s Facebook “Communities” page. So, anyone (friend or not) can visit the Levi’s communities page and see you’re a “Liker.” Yes, even if you have your “Interests” set to “private.” OK, that’s not so bad, but what if you included “sex” under interests, or “marijuana,” or “speeding.” Now, all that information is instantly accessible in a neat database … and how much would your car insurance company like that information?

Want to stop that from happening? FB says your only option is to “delete” all your interests. However, in a clever twist, that just prevents your interests from showing up on your profile (where you want them so your friends can see), yet FB keeps that info and continues selling it to advertisers. It’s the worst of both worlds. Nothing you can do; if you’ve entered something, it’s too late, FB owns it. I’ve said it before: I don’t care what your privacy settings are, don’t put anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want to appear on the front page of the New York Times. That is more true today then ever.

Think your status updates and comments are safe? Nope, those can show up on “Communities” pages too. So if you say, “I hate the FBI,” that post will show up on the “FBI” Communities page. Nice.

Facebook has explained recently that they are trying to “monetize” their user base … that translates to “get you to spend more money” and “advertise to you more” and “sell more of your information and purchasing history.” They’re trying to take a personal site where people share info with friends, and needle into that info and those exchanges and make money from them. I understand they are a business and are seeking to profit, but this method is so at odds with what their users want, I don’t think they can pull it off. At least I hope not.

I’m sure there are less invasive ways for them to harvest all that user info and make money from it without violating the trust and privacy of their users. For example, they could aggregate “trends,” things people are talking about or searching for, and sell that compiled info to companies. “Mentions of Twilight are up 12% this week,” “instances of the phrase ‘going to buy an iPad’ are down 27%,” “72% of users who discuss it claim they refuse to pay over $9.99 for e-books.” Isn’t that info valuable? And, providing that sort of aggregate (not personally-identifiable) info wouldn’t alienate FB users.

Facebook needs to seriously re-think their disregard for users’ privacy. I’m sure, when you have hundreds of millions of users, the temptation is great to see them all as nice plump dollar signs. These sorts of moves have backfired on Facebook before, spawning protests over privacy concerns, but they keep trying. Facebook is a company, and wants to make (more) money. Hey, look, I get it. I wish I could give my novels away for free and not worry if they sell or not. But I’m trying to make a living here, and the grocery store doesn’t give me food for free, and my landlord keeps bitching about rent. But I’m not taking anyone’s personal data and selling it — let alone tricking them into giving it to me. But hey, what do I know? I’m not 25 years old and the owner of a company worth over $35 billion. But my free advice is: stop pushing, Facebook, before your users turn on you and leave Facebook for good.

Maybe they’ll even sit down and read a good book instead. 😉

UPDATE: Nice article from Wired, first line: “Facebook has gone rogue, drunk on founder Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams of world domination.” Another nice tidbit, FB now adds apps without your permission when you visit certain websites (I just checked, and had 4 installed on my profile).