Predictably enough, Facebook’s new advertising initiative known as Beacon — the one that follows you around even when you’re outside Facebook and watches what you’re buying on partner websites — has sparked a small frenzy of consternation about privacy, with Charlene Li’s post about her suddenly public shopping spree at Overstock heading the pack. I’m going to side with Justin Smith of Inside Facebook on this one. I think this is pretty much a carbon copy of what happened with the news feed.
It was almost exactly a year ago that Facebook suddenly allowed everything you did on the site to be published to your news feed so that everyone could see it, and plenty of users went completely apeshit about it being a heinous invasion of privacy, etc. Facebook was excoriated for the way it handled the announcement, and for the fact that it forced people to opt out instead of allowing them to opt in and configure who saw what, and generally it was a tsunami of negative publicity.
And what is now one of the biggest draws about Facebook, one of the things that makes it so magnetic and social and addictive? The constantly updated info about who’s doing what, who has uploaded photos, who has joined a group, who has changed their relationship status to “it’s complicated.” In other words, the much-maligned news feed.
Obviously, the Beacon info is in a different category in a lot of ways. It involves things like shopping for coffee tables at Overstock, for example. So what? So Charlene didn’t notice the alert that asked he if she wanted that info to be broadcast or not. Maybe other people will not notice as well, or will get upset like Moveon.org has about how it’s opt out instead of opt in.
As Justin notes, 100 times as many people got upset about the news feed as joined the Moveon protest, and that one blew over eventually. Maybe Facebook will tweak things so it’s more obvious, or give you the blanket opt-out ability — or maybe not. I think it’s mountain and molehill territory myself. Will I have to ignore news feed items about people like Charlene buying coffee tables? Sure. Just the same way I ignore people telling me they just added the Zombie application. Big deal. (My friend Leigh Himel has a different view).