Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, was in the news this week with an example of yet another monster-sized-almost-monopoly giving its mea culpa to its customers via an op-ed in The Washington Post and other places. I’ll give Mr. Zuckerberg’s detractors their point if they want to criticize his ironic comment in the lead paragraph “If we give people control over what they share…,” since it has been a HUGE pain to control personal sharing on FB. But, the man does give a good apology, and his efforts this week are good PR.
Since Benjamin Cohen of the UK’s Channel 4 news insisted the week before that change was in the air, Facebook did seem to take a little time to get its PR act together, and the resulting effort was better than just OK, seems to me. The Facebook credo of a connected world can become a better world is something I buy intuitively, and the company’s young, sometimes stupid acting (aren’t we all?) leader is trying to be more connected to the reality that is today’s internet.
I can’t imagine a more difficult job than trying to create universal happiness in the Facebook kingdom. Some stats from the company provide an illustration of just how difficult the communications challenges are compared to other companies. First, 400 million users spend over 500 billion minutes each month on the site, sharing 25 billion pieces of content in the process. With this many customer content interactions, even a 99% effectiveness in handling them each month would deliver about 250 million screwups in just the basic stuff you promised to do for your users.
Throw privacy into the mix, and societal forces that are pushing us toward paranoia a little at a time…and controversy will ensue. Miller-McCune’s Erik Hayden posted about this in March in “On Facebook, You Are Who You Know,” citing Northeastern University and Max Planck Institute for Software Systems research using algorithms that infer personal attributes of Facebook users simply by looking at their public list of friends. There is no escape, perhaps, in a connected world.
The good news, I think, is that Zuckerberg has tried to distance the company from those who would say that privacy is dead on the internet. He’s also taken a stand against the complicated “granular” controls that users were being forced to navigate to try to achieve some measure of privacy online. (Keep in mind, we aren’t just talking about Facebook. Once information is public in one place, it tends to show up in a lot of places, so FB controls may help stem the tide of revelation.)
Zuckerberg took it a step deeper, too: “We have also heard that some people don’t understand how their personal information is used and worry that it is shared in ways they don’t want… We already offer controls to limit the visibility of that information and we intend to make them even stronger.”
With the move afoot to get users to close their Facebook accounts, I’d suggest that the genie is already out of that bottle. In fairness, though, I remained acutely attuned to accusations such as those Dan Yoder posted recently on Gizmodo (“Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook”) as he encouraged folks to abandon ship (or maybe FB now qualifies as a country). Trust, but verify seems to be the watch phrase, as always.
The principles Zuckerberg has outlined for Facebook are worthy of review by public relations counselors who will increasingly have to deal with such issues for their clients and companies. Users must have control over how their information is shared. They should not have to worry about their information being shared with unwanted people or services. Advertisers shouldn’t have access to personal information, nor should it be sold.
I want to believe the CEO of Facebook, and I maintain the hope that the wisdom of the crowd will continue to help him align his approach with the wishes of his audience.