Facebook vs. Control: Smackdown of the Week

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smackdown stage by linxbas

There’s a big brouhaha going on about Facebook’s new(ish) Terms of Service, updated earlier this month but called into the spotlight this past weekend on Consumerist and a number of other sites, including the MSM.

The biggest part of the debate hinges on who controls a user’s content, and what happens to that content even when users have removed themselves from the site.

Protest groups have formed on Facebook. Bloggers like Perez Hilton are calling for a boycott. People are deleting their accounts (but, with about 175 million members, I wonder if that has even a symbolic effect?).

The outcry prompted a response from response from Mark Zuckerburg on the Facebook blog yesterday, and says, among other things:

“In reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work. Our goal is to build great products and to communicate clearly to help people share more information in this trusted environment.

We still have work to do to communicate more clearly about these issues, and our terms are one example of this. Our philosophy that people own their information and control who they share it with has remained constant. A lot of the language in our terms is overly formal and protective of the rights we need to provide this service to you. Over time we will continue to clarify our positions and make the terms simpler.”

There are many reactions to both the change in the Terms of Service and Zuckerburg’s response. Brian Solis provides excellent perspective at PR 2.0, “Facebook and the Reality of Your Online Content.”

Solis rightly points out, “His explanation essentially serves as a wake up call to users of all social networks and other forms of social media that what we share online is now shared not only with those we know and trust, but those we don’t know…. In the end, it is our responsibility to protect ourselves and our online persona.”

I’ve often made a similar point when I speak to grad school groups (in particular), and I’ve basically said: be thoughtful about what you post in the first place, and even though you (may) have privacy controls in place, don’t let those fool you into thinking that you can or should post personal content recklessly. Personally, I use the “mother and boss” rule – whatever I share online, I have to be comfortable with my mother and boss reading or seeing.

But I also think this issue points out a bigger problem and pattern of behavior for Facebook and Zuckerburg: act first, ask for permission later. That was certainly the mode of operation when Facebook introduced Beacon and later apologized after user outcry, and seems to be continuing with their handling of the change to their Terms of Service.

Privacy is a complex, emotional issue, especially on a site like Facebook where so many people are sharing so much and so many kinds of personal content. But for exactly that reason, Facebook should have begun a dialogue about the changes to the Terms of Service before they were made, not after the fact. Clear communication in this setting doesn’t just involve breaking down legalese into human language – it involves engaging your audience in the process, from the beginning. Conversation and transparency are harder to swallow when they seem to be a forced hand.

UPDATE (2/18): Facebook has decided to revert to their previous Terms of Service, and then work on a brand new version from there. See Zuckerburg’s blog update here. It sounds like they’re really listening, and Zuckerburg says they’ll be working on a substantial revision with direct input from users. They’ve started a group called “Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” where users can weigh in.

Spot on point in Zuckerburg’s updated note: “More than 175 million people use Facebook. If it were a country, it would be the sixth most populated country in the world. Our terms aren’t just a document that protect our rights; it’s the governing document for how the service is used by everyone across the world. Given its importance, we need to make sure the terms reflect the principles and values of the people using the service.”

This was good crisis handling on Facebook’s part. They took action, communicated promptly, and are responding to the concerns of users in a productive way.

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