Facebook Beacon woes are overstated

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).

23 thoughts on “Facebook Beacon woes are overstated

  1. perhaps you're over simplifying just a little bit here? the average user won't understand the implications of beacon… transparency is an issue… amongst others. sure it will blow over, but that doesn't make the reaction uncalled for.

    • Maybe I am simplifying, Sean. But what are the implications of
      Beacon, when it gets right down to it? That one's friends get
      notified when you buy a coffee table or a movie at Blockbuster? Not
      exactly the end of civilization as we know it, I would argue. And if
      it happens enough and people get upset, then I expect that Facebook
      will change the way it works.

  2. I disagree with you on this one. I think people's actions outside FB (e.g. shopping at Overstock) have nothing to do with their online personal interaction and behavior inside their social networks and should be one's own choice whether to broadcast their online habits with others. Do I really want people who know me to know what I surf, read, and shop for online?

    Is it a wonder that people are looking at the Experience Project with interest? It still kind of freaks me out when I click on a link in somehwere and end up on another blog that's a part of MyBlogLog and it automatically shows that I was there reading it. I didn't sign up to be shown as a reader on that blog (and tacitly give my “endorsement” by showing I was there reading it). For my regular reads, that's fine, but not my random web surfing. I think it's creepy and feels invasive. I asked Yahoo about it and they said I had to log out and completely clear my cache to remove my path (even logged out it still showed me when I was reading a blog).

    • Antje, I can see how some people would definitely feel that way — and
      that's why there needs to be some flexibility. And I expect if the
      backlash is big enough, it will change.

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  4. I totally diagree with you M..Letting me “discover” that I am being tracked outside of facebook and that they are co-relating that info to me personally is not only a potential violation of bill C6 here in Canada (where the burden of disclosure happens to be on the Corporation in question and NOT the user), it's a complete abuse of trust with their community. Which IMO is integral to the long term viability of facebook.

    Ok enough of that. I coudn't find an OPT out link – can you point me to it?

    • That's a good point, Leigh — Canada's privacy commissioner may have
      something to say about Beacon, just as she did about Google's
      StreetView.

      As for the opt out choice, I think that appears on a case-by-case
      basis at the site you're on when you buy or do something. I haven't
      actually seen one.

      And you are free to disagree with me, of course, as always — although
      by definition that makes you wrong. πŸ™‚

    • Mathew,

      1. Not everyone restricts their purchases to dainty things like coffee tables and throw rugs. I'd predict that Beacon if implemented as stated will make past episodes of “shitstorm” and “apeshit” look like a light drizzle and a petting zoo, respectively, by comparison.

      2. It's opt-out??!?!

      • Thanks for the comment, Andrew. And I appreciate that plenty of
        people make purchases or browse on sites that they may not wish to
        have revealed to their entire Facebook posse. But will any of those
        sites be partnering with the social network anytime soon? That's hard
        to say. I think Facebook is probably just as eager to maintain a
        certain level of decency as its users are.

        • well maybe porn sites or sex toys shop or wifeswapping.com won't partner, but what about an innocuous site such as amazon or netflix or even target? Maybe I still don't want everyone to know what kind of feminine products I use or what books I'm purchasing. And I NEVER read those disclosures – I just close the windows or click “I agree” to everything (I have no patience).

          by the way you can say apeshit in a blog? πŸ™‚

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  6. It is hard to say exactly what will happen here. Facebook seems to at times as you said make decisions without possibly any thinking before hand. They force the public to opt in, and then at a later time allow for opting out, in a super complicated way, which I feel is so difficult that most people are stuck with their privacy public for everyone to read. On the other hand, I have seen that it is fairly addicting (I'm agreeing with you here) that reading what everyone else is doing is not necessary, but plenty amusing. We will have to see where this goes, I would not be surprized if they pushed it once again. However, it is becoming much more complicated than a “social network,” with all the “widgets” you could call them, and forced advertising.

  7. No, Matthew this will not blow over. It may become a disaster, but the earlier news feed controversy happened entirely withing Facebook. People have come to accept that what they do within the confines of Facebook will often be shared with all.

    Since this is a matter of individuals user experience making personal choices OUTSIDE of Facebook, it's a whole different ballgame. We may give up some privacy for enhanced user experiences – targeted ads for example. But how do we benefit if all our friends now we just bought a particular product. How does a women benefit if now all of her friends and colleagues on Facebook now know that she just bought three books on coping with sexually transmitted diseases via Amazon? Or a closeted gay man who buys books on homosexuality. How does a guy who just ordered an engagement ring for his girlfriend from another partner site.

    I say that we're looking at major potential violations of privacy.

    And then there's that other point I touched on. Who benefits? The online store does. Facebook does. Do the purchaser? How? Do his or her friends? How?
    So we have to give up our privacy and not benefit. Doesn't make sense.

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