Face Book, Chapter and Verse.
Social media are evolving, with online services converging ever faster. As the digital world penetrates deeper into our lives, Martin Shah ponders the price of that most elusive commodity – privacy.
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You know the story. An old pal finds you on Facebook, you ‘friend’ each other, you reminisce, you upload old and fairly damning photos, you search for other long-lost patriots, you trade Wall posts about that night in 1991 (you link to the pub where it all began), then it hits you: your parents are also on Facebook… and they are watching.
It’s true and becoming more of a reality for many – including this writer. Do you really want your mum and dad to see more of your past than you allowed them to see back then? Do you want them to question your unassailable position as the prodigal son, the darling offspring with the immaculate reputation? Do you really want them to see what you bought on fuzzycrap.com in a fit of guilty late-night online shopping? Or shall you welcome them into the arms of your digital doppelganger and let your dubious histories and current goofs flow unimpeded into their gaping eyes? Now, imagine that scenario but replace mum and dad with Acme Ltd. or any other company so inclined. They can now watch and learn too. And not only from what you do from within Facebook, but from what you do elsewhere on the web. I, for one, do not like the thought. So what’s a digitally addicted, yet generally private person to do?
This scenario highlights a new phase in the speeding onslaught of issues, real and perceived, around internet privacy and their impact on our lives. And whether your personal decision is to slow down, shut up and re-cloak your digital personae, the bleed-through to other digital experiences is almost certain. Those other experiences will need your digital scraps to become alive, to adapt, to fulfill. In short, it will be hard to restrict the demand on your digital profile and – most likely – too freaking fun and enjoyable to escape from anyway.
Not surprisingly, Facebook is at the center of this growing flashpoint. It has recently created a deeper fracture in its position of social network gorilla as it turns from a user-directed community into a marketer-driven platform. The new platform, called Open Graph, is a documented and dynamic protocol of your web connections, interests and network activities that is designed to give marketers better relevance and entry points to you (and eventually, your wallet).
Recently at Facebook’s annual conference, F8, Mark Zuckerberg – the company’s wunderkind, Founder and CEO, delivered a preview of Open Graph to the market. Open Graph will allow a unification of many different areas of a person’s online activity – primarily, websites and apps – through Facebook. More commonly, when you’re logged into FB, but travel to other participating third-party sites, those websites can leverage Open Graph to push highly tailored goods and services your way. All of this will be automatic and will not require you to ‘sign-in’ to that third party site. Your surfing is no longer anonymous. Open Graph, aka Facebook, will know. Is it that simple, that Orwellian a future?
“It’s a game changer,” says Rodrigo Dauster, Chief Product Officer at GEKKO, a London-based online travel service powered by social networks. “From a business perspective, here is a company nearing 500 million registered users that is no longer constrained to its site. Facebook may over-run the Internet.”
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Should you care? Consider for a moment: as you read this, your digital profile is being modified, crawled and digested by an unknown and growing number of marketing engines. You’ve probably begun to see more highly targeted advertisements creeping into your web browser, more relevant direct and electronic mail, perhaps even the sneaky upsell at your favorite brick-and-mortar retailer during checkout? The frightening aspects of this activity are the sheer scope of the data being amassed and the ease of access to this profile information by any business, small or large. From that point of view, everyone should care, and care deeply.
For some of you, this topic of privacy is trumped by the temptation of exposure: your greater desire is to be seen by your peers in every context possible regardless of the cost. A recent event with a US-based website called Blippy.com highlighted this attitudinal quantum shift. Blippy’s stated service allows users to enter their credit card account details, which in turn allow Blippy to push these user’s transactions into the social web. Want to show off your new designer suit? Well, start by letting Blippy tell everyone how much you paid for it and where. And, as if on cue for this debate, Blippy missed a crucial beat: their platform security left open a hole wide enough for the free search of that data. With the right query, anyone using Google could find out about Blippy’s user transactions, the amount spent, the specific location (address included) and the complete credit card number. Doh.
It is argued by some that Open Graph is designed for just that – the ultimate way to exploit a community of users who simply don’t care about (or don’t fully understand) privacy. It may be the greatest ‘opt-out’ charade of all time: unless you say no to specific conditions, in specific ways, at specific times, your digital histories and current activities are free game. To get there, other changes are also being made. At F8, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would no longer adhere to the 24-hour privacy shield: “We’ve had this policy where you can’t store and cache any data for more than 24 hours, and we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to get rid of that policy.”
Dauster reiterates, “Users trusted Facebook with their private thoughts, private pictures and private preferences. But they then flipped to an open model with mind-bogglingly complicated privacy settings.”
Interestingly enough, the new nexus of defiance against Facebook’s growing command-and-control mentality is coming from deep inside the web industry itself – technologists, designers, developers – many of whom were early FB evangelists and users themselves. There is a new fervor in alternative strategies. How about the digital version of ‘Just Say No’? This past May 31st was dubbed ‘Quit Facebook Day’ by the site of the same name. There are other rants, both informative and purely philosophical, on many blogs. There are even plugins that help configure the confusing privacy settings for your FB account. There is also Project Diaspora, another cadre of uber-geeks who have set out to develop a social platform that is more open, yet tied to clear principles of privacy. But Diaspora, even with its recent good press and do-good manifesto, has an incredibly challenging uphill battle to reach the competitive scale of Facebook.
Now for the brighter side, lest you think this writer is merely a digital hypocrite. When consumed inside Open Graph and intelligently utilized, your digital breadcrumbs will help create entirely new, and potentially more compelling and valuable experiences. In fact Facebook already has. The second evolution of Facebook’s fabric, dubbed Facebook Connect, has allowed other websites and enabled devices to access your Friends list and Status updates. See that little icon? This has created a layer of valuable relevance for how you might choose to use (or not) a particular digital service. Do your Friends use it? How often do they use it?
The irony is that for many if not most online businesses, Facebook is a boon to growth and a key strategic lever. Richard Titus, CEO of AND, the digital consumer subsidiary of Daily Mail & General Trust and a FTSE250 company, sees this in a positive light, “This is the natural and welcome next step in the evolution of the Facebook platform.”
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“At AND our primary source of revenue and most significant profits derive from businesses which are distinctly web 1.0 vintage: jobs, property, travel, motors and local services and information.” Further, he continues, “Facebook is in the highly enviable position of having only two key priorities: Growth and User Engagement.” Titus fully intends to leverage Facebook’s priorities in order to grow AND’s business.
Dauster, in his leadership role for GEKKO, isn’t all doom and gloom about Open Graph either. “We are implementing the social plugin to make our site more widely known. The recommendation of a friend that ‘likes’ what we offer is the most powerful form of marketing that we can hope for.”
As GEKKO demonstrates, there’s a growing segment of sites and related apps that reflects this new type of digital experience, encompassing both a break-the-mold mentality and the network effect of Facebook and its peers. It is currently blossoming in the online travel – geo-spatial industry: TripIt, Dopplr, Gowalla and foursquare being other recent darlings. Titus is enthusiastic: “I’m a big fan of this new innovative sector, and am a frequent foursquare user.” He revels in his early-adopter win, becoming ‘Mayor of Heathrow’ for a couple weeks this past year while using fourquare. He explains the appeal for his business, “Vectors like location (including a check in status), shared interests and preferences allow us to really improve our quality and personalisation.”
What then to do about privacy? As we go to press here, Zuckerberg has unveiled a new method of managing your privacy settings inside Facebook. The ‘Making Control Simple’ pronouncement is a quick response to Open Graph’s gorilla motives. The irony is that this privacy battleground may well be overshadowed by a currently unknown start-up that comes from the flank to challenge Facebook (remember how Facebook trumped the early social leader, Friendster?) Until then, do as most real-world customers do – if you aren’t being served, vote with your feet. We can do that, right? Anyone know how to delete your Facebook account?