Facebook owns spectacular portions of its users’ time and has the right to use their data; this is the basis for Facebook’s significant revenue potential and is a great reason why we should hold Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to very high standards. But Facebook’s success is not nearly sufficient cause for the level of demonization that occurs today in popular media and among social media insiders. Facebook deserves the scrutiny it receives, but the excessive reputational lynching that is underway could result in outcomes that are contrary to the interests of both consumers and marketers.
How bad has the Facebook scaremongering gotten today? I opened my latest issue of Maxim to find “The 12 Most Dangerous Men in the World: Meet the Dirty Dozen who very well could be the last people you see before you die.” And there, stuck between the Mexican drug lord who uses severed heads as a warning to rivals and the Jamaican drug lord responsible for street battles, is Mark Zuckerberg. To be fair, the magazine was being comical, citing as a threat “annoying people from your past ‘friending’ you” and including Brian Austin Green in the same list; still the casual and easily accepted association between Facebook and evil is not without repercussions.
This problem isn’t limited to popular media; it even comes from social media insiders responsible for shaping the attitudes of both consumers and corporate decision-makers toward social media. An influential friend of mine has written a great book on how social media is changing the world, and it mentions Facebook 86 times. He is also known for proclaiming “If you don’t love social media, you suck at social media.” Ironically, he is the same guy who recently told me “Facebook is Mordor,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s hellish lair of evil from the “Lord of the Rings” series. Excuse me, but where is the love?
Without question, consumers (particularly children) must be educated about the risks of sharing and the tools at their disposal to control how their data is accessed and used, but this not only can be achieved without demonizing Facebook but can be accomplished more successfully without doing so. I’d suggest three reasons why exaggerating Facebook’s faults and attributing sinister intent to Facebook’s action are detrimental to the interests of consumers and marketers:
- Demonizing Facebook could result in actions contrary to consumers' interests: Raising consumers’ fear of Facebook misses the point and could encourage actions that harm rather than help the cause of individual privacy and security. It isn’t merely that sharing information on Facebook has consequences or that managing Facebook’s privacy settings is vital — consumers must be made aware of the risks and implications in all social media channels. In the end, if inflating the dangers of Facebook causes consumers to flee Facebook and begin sharing in exactly the same ways on other social networks, nothing will have been accomplished; in fact, it could be argued this might hurt rather than help consumers.
Due to Facebook’s sheer size, it is now under the microscope of privacy advocates and regulators. That doesn’t mean Facebook cannot or will not do things to cause concern, but it does mean that when this happens the company will come under intense and very public scrutiny. The same cannot be said about the myriad other social venues that currently exist or will arise in the years to come. If we care about protecting the public interest, the message cannot be that Facebook is dangerous and, by implication, must be abandoned, but instead we must promote informed behavior and proactive control in every social channel.
- Demonizing Facebook harms opportunities for effective social media marketing: Privacy activists may not care about harming the cause of corporations in social media, but anyone who claims to be a social media consultant certainly should. For those of us who make a living out of helping companies authentically connect with consumers, demonizing the platform that has been adopted by 500 million people globally seems silly and hazardous. Would a marketer trust an SEO expert who preaches that Google is evil because it owns the lion’s share of the search market and monetizes people’s interests, habits and data? It’s time those of us “in the business” stop painting Facebook in broad brush strokes and instead give an honest assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly; doing so will benefit both our clients and ourselves.
But there’s a more important outcome here than the selfish interests of social media consultants and companies wanting to exploit Facebook. Social media can best flourish and provide benefits to users when the interests of consumers and corporations are balanced. If the interests of companies are put above consumers, that leads to actions (such as fake blogs and undisclosed compensation for advocacy) that destroy trust and harm brands. But if the interests of individuals are placed above companies, there can be adverse implications, as well. The myriad free services that consumers have embraced are not, in fact, free; consumers pay for these services by allowing their data to be used by advertisers so that more relevant advertising may be presented. Unless consumers are willing to pay for the online services that they love — and they aren’t — then consumers’ interests are best served not by discrediting Facebook but by helping consumers and businesses recognize why balance, transparency and authenticity are so important in today’s world.
- Demonizing Facebook negatively influences attitudes toward business: Since when is it wrong to build a better mousetrap, and a free one at that? Faulting Facebook for getting big and successful through legal and entrepreneurial means is, well, downright un-American. Antitrust claims will come (as happens to any company that amasses a certain market share and power), but it is notable that Facebook has grown to the size it is while avoiding the kind of serious monopolistic accusations that have been leveled against companies such as Microsoft and Google.
I am not suggesting Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg are above criticism; in fact, it is vital Facebook faces vocal critics when it makes serious missteps like Beacon or expands opt-out processes such as Instant Personalization. But if we prize fairness and entrepreneurship, criticism of specific Facebook actions must not become criticism of Facebook’s existence or the projection of evil intent upon everything Facebook does. Bashing new Facebook features designed to increase engagement on the platform because they increase Facebook’s revenue opportunities is like complaining that Ford offers Sync, its high-tech data and control system, simply to sell more cars. Of course it does! The time has come to stop criticizing Facebook for being so darn good at offering an enticing and valued service and instead bring awareness to the ways Facebook makes money and how consumers can make informed decisions about how much they are willing to “pay” with their personal information.
I come here today neither to praise nor bury Facebook but to bring balance where it belongs. We can and must shine a bright light on the way Facebook operates and enlighten consumers on their risks and rights, but demonizing Facebook and its CEO makes this harder rather than easier. Bash Facebook all you want when it deserves it, but carelessly tossing the hardworking folks at Facebook into the same ring of hell as drug lords, rapists and Orcs is not only unfair but also contrary to the interests of all parties.