The New York Times’ Bits blog has a post today in which chief Facebook lobbyist Elliot Schrage answers reader questions.
For a lawyer — especially a lawyer facing a Bonfire of the Vanities-worthy media frenzy, a meddling Congress, watchdog groups barking at his door and an inchoate Intifada by his longest-standing and most important partner — Schrage was pretty forthcoming; most lobbyist / marketers would equivocate their way out of a similar mess.
Actually, if you read the Times blog post closely enough, Schrage effectively admits it’s that sort of behavior that has put Facebook in hot water:
“Our desire to innovate and create new opportunities for people to share sometimes conflicts with our goal to create an easy and accessible user experience,” he wrote in the introduction. “It takes forums like this to get better ideas and insights about your needs.”
Which is the purpose behind this post. I’d like to put, in layman’s terms, Schrage’s answers to each of the questions posed, and either provide the answer I wish he had given — that is, an answer that is the plain truth about why Facebook does what it does — or expand on what he said.
Q: “Why can’t you leave well enough alone? Why do I have to do a weekly ritual of checking to see what new holes you’ve slashed into the Facebook Security Blanket, so that I have to go and hide or delete yet more stuff? Are Facebook customers really pounding on your door screaming that they want more categories of their personal data to be available to marketers every few months?”
Schrage: We are clearly upsetting people by making changes as often as we do. No personally identifiable information is shared with advertisers.
Me: Social media is young. What works and what is profitable changes quickly; what fit into the way Facebook did things, even just a few months ago, may be cutting off opportunities to make money or head off challenges from other social media providers today. That’s why things change so much: To protect and grow Facebook’s market share.
If you’re going to complain about Web advertising based on browsing habits, you probably should have stopped using the Web back in 1996. And if you’ve ever used a coupon, promo code, frequent buyer card or gift card, I’d like to kick you in the butt as I explain what, exactly, constitutes behavior-based marketing.
Q: “It used to be that I could limit what strangers saw about me to almost nothing. I could not show my profile picture, not allow them to ‘poke’ or message me, certainly not allow them to view my profile page. Now, even my interests have to be public information. Why can’t I control my own information anymore?”
Schrage: Using Facebook means accepting the terms of service. As the service changes to become more interactive and to leverage Facebook’s data across independent Web sites, what data gets shared needs to change, too. “If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.”
Q: “What caused the controversial glitch; what are the chances of it recurring?”
Schrage: Engineering screwed the pooch. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.
Me: Been there, done that. More times than I’d like to admit.
Q: “What are Facebook’s legal liabilities should any critical information be leaked and misused?”
Schrage: An exodus of users would hurt us way more than any stupid law, or lawsuit, will ever manage.
Me: Amen, brother. Facebook’s bread and butter is in having lots and lots of users sharing lots and lots of information. That’s why Facebook will never charge a basic user fee, regardless of the endlessly recycled rumors to the contrary.
Q: “Has Facebook ever considered asking us, the hundreds of millions of users who make money for them, what we would or would rather not have? You know, sort of like asking the customer what they would prefer?”
Schrage: You mean the millions of dollars we spend every year on market research and focus groups?
Me: And the “anyone can make anything” framework that powers thousands of annoying quiz, game and trinket-swap programs?
Seems to me every time we ask tens of millions of Americans to make a decision, we manage to mess things up badly. Facebook has a better idea than Joe the Plumber of how it should work and what makes a successful social media empire.
Q: “What is the long-term plan to monetize Facebook’s huge traffic, and how will that impact user privacy?”
Schrage: Targeted ads will pay the bills. We don’t need to sell personally identifiable information.
Me: Let’s not forget becoming a primary content portal, the possibility of charging businesses to operate pages on the site, and selling to others the same aggregated data you use to place targeted ads.
That might be back-burner stuff at the moment, but it’s coming, especially if Facebook continues to grow in its role as a source of single sign-on to other Web sites.
Q: “What’s the actual, real-life-applicable upside for the Facebook user of any of the recent changes you’ve made to privacy settings? How do they make the site better for me?”
Schrage: Social networking only works if people are looking at what you are sharing. If Facebook’s data of shared items can permeate everyplace on the Web — major news sites, Pandora, etc. — that’s a lot more useful than having to run TweetDeck, or having to visit Facebook itself. Let Facebook come to you, wherever you are; that’s how we will conquer the Web.
Me: MySpace had a closed model in which there was no API provided to third parties to leverage its data and share what you do elsewhere on the Web; MySpace lets you completely shut out strangers from your profile. Look where that got them.
Q: “I’d like to ask Elliot, and all the senior staff at Facebook, what are the privacy settings for their own personal Facebook accounts? Can you share the settings (not your personal data, obviously) with the NYT and Facebook users?”
Schrage: I don’t use the default privacy settings for Facebook. Neither does Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That’s because we ain’t your friend, and we ain’t gonna be your friend.
Me: Take that, Schrage! Best question of them all.
It is worth noting the irony that Schrage’s Facebook profile can’t be found via searching Facebook. The one profile I found with a photo (and with the permalink user name of elliot.schrage) clearly isn’t the Elliot Schrage, and the other two listings had no identifying information other than sex. These, of course, could be troll accounts.
Schrage is also listed on the Facebook executives bios media page.
But, seriously, if you’re going to claim your default privacy settings are innocuous, shouldn’t all your executives have profiles that conform to, and reveal legitimate information under, the default privacy settings?
Q: “Why not simply set everything up for opt-in rather than opt-out? Facebook seems to assume that users generally want all the details of their private lives made public.”
Schrage: You shouldn’t put things on the Internet that you don’t want others to see. Or you could just go pound sand.
Q: “I love Facebook, but I am increasingly frustrated by the convoluted nature of the privacy settings. It’s clearly within Facebook’s ability to make the privacy settings clear and easy to use — why hasn’t this been a focus?”
Schrage: To make privacy settings simple enough for the average middle-class housewife to operate, we have to use very broad settings. If we let users micromanage privacy, they’ll mess it up badly.
Me: Take it from someone who has made a lot of money cleaning up PCs trashed by users who click things randomly: He’s underselling the problem. I have provided step-by-step instructions on how to change Facebook settings — sometimes, even including screenshots — and had them botched beyond recognition.
Q: “What happens when an account is deleted? Do one’s posts on walls, photos, and fan pages remain visible on the site? How long does user data remain on your servers?”
Schrage: If you deactivate your account, your name and posts on other profiles remain, but your profile effectively disappears. If you delete your account, your name and posts on other people’s walls get attributed to “anonymous,” your profile is gone, and the stuff you’ve put on Facebook is deleted over time.
Me: What he said.
Q: “How can I easily see what people who aren’t my friends but are members of Facebook see about me in my profile?”
Schrage: There’s a preview my profile button when you edit your profile, and there’s a button on the Privacy guide page.
Q: “Also, what of my information is being indexed by search engines?”
Schrage: Whatever information you set to be viewable by “Everyone” in your privacy settings; and, a standardized search engine listing page, if you have checked that box in your privacy settings.
Me: STFW, n00b.
Q: “Why must I link to a page for my school, job, or interests and make them public, or delete the information entirely?”
Schrage: It’s easier to physically link the relationships between classmates, coworkers and the like if we can standardize both how, and where, you list your school, employer and interests.
Me: The purpose behind social media is to connect to people with whom you might have similarities. If you don’t want to do that, just make a private blog.
Man, I gotta tell you, that was a lot of fun. I have more to say about Facebook and all the concerns about privacy, so watch for a post on that soon.
All links in this post on delicious: http://delicious.com/dougvdotcom/the-answers-i-wish-facebook-had-given-to-user-questions