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March 27, 2010

Facebook Sharing Data Webwide Promising, Difficult

Despite its walled-in history, many of Facebook's recent strides have trended toward making what was once private public, and that which was previously unavailable to search engines discoverable. The company, cognizant of the failures experienced by data hoarders of the past, appears to have the desire to change - and will need to do so progressively, as to not upset the apple cart, inviting the fire and brimstone from a mob wronged. This week's tea leaf readings spell out plans for Facebook to share data from your personal profile with third party Web sites you visit, letting them tailor your Web content (and ads) just for you. The result, a much more relevant Web experience, would likely have big benefits for consumers, advertisers, and of course, Facebook, but it sets off the same alarm bells that rang with Beacon and other companies who have changed the rules in the middle of the game. The question is, can Facebook make the leap in such a way that it can still be trusted?

I've talked a lot about my own desire for companies serving ads to leverage the social profiles I have created around the Web, so I don't have to constantly be bombarded with off-topic dreck. (See: I Wish Ad Companies Would Truly Leverage Social Profiles and I Just Marked All Facebook Ads as Offensive. So Should You., both from 2009) So the news from various outlets saying that Facebook is planning this very thing, to share data with third party Web sites, has me nodding in understanding, while at the same time cringing, thanks to a lack of transparency to the process, and the knowledge that many people won't be very excited about the move.

If I were to look at the situation from Facebook's perspective, I can see how the company is at a crossroads, tied to the old rules they've had since inception, but trying to be nimble enough to compete with companies that haven't had the same restrictions. Facebook is sitting on a gold mine of user information and attention data, and advertisers are as keen as ever to find the right targets and deliver relevant advertising or content. Facebook doesn't have the luxury of starting anew and trying to develop a new company that doesn't have the shackles of the past which it does, but has the opportunity of a network with 500 million users. The hardest part is seeing how they can get from Point A to Point B without leaving a bloody trail in the streets.

Shortly after the debate on Google Buzz and its own privacy issues, and my posting of an article where I said I thought the cries were dramatically overblown, I met up with Dare Obasanjo of Microsoft at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, and we talked about this balance of business versus privacy. In his opinion, social networks can never sacrifice their ideals on privacy, not matter the opportunity ahead of them. He told me, in a CinchCast (which blew up halfway through), that Microsoft had the opportunity to turn MSN Messenger and Hotmail into an open network like Buzz, but they chose not to because they determined it would be wrong. Buzz went through this process with Gmail, and they paid for it in the world of PR and trust, even if I thought the reaction was too strong. Facebook has had its struggles before with the same issue. For every public statement by the team's executives about the changing concept of privacy, and users like me who don't mind it at all, there are others who think their trajectory has them at odds with their user base.

I want to trust Facebook in the same way I have trusted Google and other networks with my data. I personally would not object to Facebook's sharing my information with third parties and advertisers, because I am not anti-ads, I am pro-relevancy, and I want to help solve these issues of quality. I think a world where third party sites know their targets better can only lead to more responsible business transactions and more commerce, period. I can see Facebook struggling to get 500 million people on its network to "opt in" to a system that shares their information, and them seeing pushing forward in a brutal way as the only option. It's a rough situation, where the end result would be great and the process in between would be a mess. I want the relevancy, but will everyone else find the cost worth it?