Following advertisements for a contest where Facebook fans can enter to win a 60” 3D television, anchors’ guffaws at “The Facebook” and “The Twitter,” and the third run of a talk about how Facebook and social media peacefully brought down a dictator in 18 days, FOX8, our beloved Fox affiliate network channel, ran a special report on Facebook privacy which showed how confused people are about Facebook.
Stirring up fears about Facebook’s lackadaisical attitude towards users’ privacy is almost as old as the site itself, but really took off after the introduction of the news feed, prompting this post from Michael Cera himself. But FOX8 reports that there yet is one more person who knows “everything” about you, even after 170 types of privacy options: the social media marketer.
“The majority of the individuals who use Facebook of course are on there to make their social connections and keeping in touch with friends and family. So looking at advertising and looking how they monitor that really is not in their realm of awareness.”
Strengthening this argument is the general concern about privacy that Facebook users have cultivated. Avoiding questions of survey design, there is no attempt by Gallup/USAToday to reconcile this data with the knowledge users displayed about the privacy settings even at an early stage of development for the site, nor with the skyrocketing membership and constant activity seen as the site has become the second-most-trafficked site on the web. Obviously we’re not dealing with an all-or-nothing situation, and maybe even analysis of risk perception could be appropriate, though of course not under the language of physical harm.
The FTC supports a browser-based “Do Not Track” system, while Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) offers a much more nebulous, but more proactive and far-reaching system. These proposals and recommendations are to protect the users of the site from their private lives being compromised.
But the privacy argument driving interest, polls, and media stories is too muddled to be coherent — there’s privacy, and then there’s privacy, and then there’s privacy. These three realms where users can unknowingly give out information — your network, the public, and advertisers — have different priorities and different interdependencies when it comes to blocking access.
The first kind of privacy — hiding your information from your own network — seems simply counterintuitive to me. Like having a private Livejournal, not using the social aspect of a social network seems a bit counterintuitive. There’s got to be some kind of control here — Reuben Foster of UNO says, “If I don’t want it to be public, then I won’t … click these things,” and that’s right on the money.
In addition, the News Feed is smart. That first variable, the affinity score, is user-controlled. If you don’t talk to someone, they won’t show up as often. To boot, the other variables, weight and time, simply fulfill the definition of a social network. Combined with easy to navigate deletion and blocking capabilities, it’s a hard sell to me that there isn’t enough privacy options for the user.
But that’s a straw man; privacy can be breached in other ways. While privacy settings can stop a lot, so many checkboxes to look at and discover over time might be overwhelming. Worse still, Facebook has a bad habit of resetting its users’ privacy settings when it updates its features. We’ve talked before about other people looking at your posts and online image branding. There are a number of news stories where someone posts something that unintentionally irritates the wrong people, all of which bring up the divide between what is or isn’t public speech.
While I’m not about to open that can of worms, two alternate court cases show the two likely outcomes of privacy issues: either an out of court settlement or a court siding with the company, who can probably show a solid link between loudly kvetching about work and “job performance.” The question on the level of privacy and anonymity of your Facebook profile has not been answered; best to tread with care, but not necessarily lightly.
Even with careful Facebook pruning, you still have your information going to advertisers, and it is this what puts Facebook in a unique position for privacy. Google doesn’t have the instant interest data to tailor their content offerings like Facebook does. Even Microsoft, whose use of Internet Explorer to strengthen Bing’s ranking pages is more insidious and less publicized, gets their data from Facebook￼
WVUE reflects the average Facebook user’s view when it refers to all ads as “Sponsored Stories.” Ads are ads — it’s neither Facebook’s intent nor in their interest to try to fool you into thinking they’re not, and you’d have to ignore clear headings to think they’re from your friends. There is a difference, though: Sponsored Stories refers to ads that look more like regular news feed posts; however, they again have the telltale heading. They also can only be shown to people “whose friends are already connected to” the Facebook page or post that they’re connected to. Similarly, fan page ads can only be shown to people not already connected to the fan page.
Facebook’s ad targeting is much less sinister than it seems. You can filter by age, sex, and broad category of interest. While the Family Status category under interests is on one hand a bit questionable, it can heavily influence relevance of ads; you wouldn’t want to be showing ads for singles sites if a member is married with kids.
You can then target by Connection to a Page, Event or App. The next section, the Advanced Demographics, provides advertisers with better opportunities to provide relevant content and avoid marketing gaffes. Finally, you can target by education level or workplace.
And that’s it, right? You get your broad information, and nothing’s even tracked deeply enough to cause any concern. That doesn’t seem so bad.
But when something* happens with your account, the advertiser gets access to Likes & Interests. This narrows the interests so that it is more like traditional keyword bidding. This isn’t unusual, and follows the traditions from Google pay-per-click advertising. The advertising platform provides vague statistics to give advertisers an idea of how many people are interested in ideas that are related to your link.
But not only does the advertiser get this information. Another privacy craze was raised over Facebook’s Open Graph Platform, which began the rash of “Like” buttons on the site. Extending the simplicity of the “Like” from every kind of “Edge” — the term Facebook uses for any post, link, comment, or ad — to web pages seems logical and extends not only the brand, but the whole social media mentality.
Open Graph allows a content provider to, like Google Analytics, track his links’ likes and clicks on Facebook, even without having a Facebook presence. While this might seem like nothing new to your loss of privacy, an important distinction has to be drawn between this and Google’s tracking programs. Facebook offers this information with your personal information like your friends list in the unseen data. Obviously, this is used not for advertisers, but for the inner machinery. However, the concern remains that someone with a bit of knowhow can get that information.
But that information isn’t useful for advertisers right now. A list of friends might be interesting on a massive level, but then again, the individual is lost looking at larger trends. The other factors, publicly displayed on your profile
Through these three realms of privacy, it seems that there’s good reason to be afraid of Facebook and its privacy issues. But here’s the catch — who’s really looking at this? Advertisers and content providers, even among the slimiest of content farms, simply want to provide a better user experience. They, including us, are looking for the most people clicking on ads and, more importantly, interact with the content behind the ads.
There’s a tendency for people versed in Facebook to blame the user — we all see the inner workings, we know how easy the whole system is if you turn off your brain. We know that all you have to do is click the “Like” button and you’re giving us good information that we can use to give you more of what you already, at least in a marketing sense, “Like.” Those that are trying to target you are trying to give you more of what you’ve already said you want, even if it’s an admittedly selfish gift, since advertisers obviously get benefits from you clicking the link.
But the Skinner box that is Facebook, and particularly the games and apps that tweak and complicate privacy settings beyond the basic problems described, is ultimately something from which its users benefit. The on-first-glance underhanded data-gathering techniques are ultimately the way that Facebook serves its users, by providing content relevant to them, as determined by them.
*We are looking into this. Check back for more info!
Picture Courtesy of the Facebook Engineering Blog
Don’t forget to “Like” this page. We promise to do every creepy thing we can with your information and show you what you’re sending to advertisers and content providers in an upcoming blog post.
Posted on Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011
Contact us today at 504-208-3900 for website content management and content optimization services.