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June 3, 2010
The Real Issue Is a lot Bigger Than Facebook

For six months I’ve been reading the various treatises, manifestos, and diatribes that people who are a lot smarter than me have been writing about the evils of Facebook. It has become fashionable/sporting for some members of the social media elite to announce to the world they are quitting Facebook: “I closed my Facebook account," ”I closed mine first," ”I hate Facebook more than you and here are 15 reasons why," or “Mark Zuckerberg is Hitler/the devil/the fan who interfered with the foul ball that ultimately cost the Cubs a trip to the World Series in 2003 [choose one].”

At this point, a pack mentality has set in that reminds me of the way many in the media pile on the “hate Obama” or “hate Palin” bandwagons, or the way crusaders of nutritional justice pursue McDonald’s at top speed, while getting off their high horses just outside the doors of their favorite chic big-city restaurants, where more than a few individual entrees load on more calories than any human being should ingest in a 24-hour period. The point is, I see a lot of people riding the rising tide of Facebook haters while forgetting, or conveniently ignoring, other logical targets. We’ll get to those in a minute. I also see people making substantive, valid, and coherent arguments about their issues with Facebook. To avoid a torrent of links in this piece, I’ve posted many of the best here so you can find them fast and draw your own conclusions.

These are the symptoms. I’m going to press on to what may be the underlying issue. Another item making the social media rounds is, “Facebook caught sending user data to advertisers,” which translated into the political realm might read: “Barack caught strong-arming senators before a vote and cutting the same kinds of deals as every other president dating back almost to George Washington.” Let’s take a deep breath and think this through. We all do business with companies every day. Maybe like me you opt out of all marketing mailers, offers, calls, etc. Now for the truth: We can opt out all we want and companies can make all the promises we want to hear, but does anyone really think most are not finding some way to leverage your user data, especially in these impossible economic times, to generate revenue? How about personal data you haven’t even provided to them but is available from other sources? With some highly ethical exceptions: They are. Maybe it’s by selling data to list brokers, or quietly providing it to partners. With preset thresholds that delay any marketing efforts in your direction for three-six months so it’s not obvious that immediately after you began doing business with Company X, your mailbox or e-mail spam folder suddenly got a lot fuller.

Now let’s take a quick tour through the U.S. Do Not Call Registry. You can put all your landline and mobile numbers into the registry, as I have, yet it still doesn’t bar calls from the biggest nuisance callers there are: Political organizations right before an election. (It doesn’t stop them from pounding your phones the rest of the year, but as a practical matter, they forget about us when the election’s over. In more ways than one.) Who else may call you? Any company with whom you have “an existing business relationship” for up to 18 months after your last purchase, payment, or delivery “unless you ask the company not to call again.” (That last phrase has about as much teeth as the ridiculous California highway statute that says motorcycles “should not” share a driving lane with other vehicles.) You may also be pestered by the same company up to 31 days after submitting an application or inquiry to that company. The registry only applies to residential lines, not business, and this is who else can still call you: charities, and anyone conducting a “survey.” That last one is a loophole so big you could pilot an aircraft carrier through it, and it’s how many are getting around the law now.

In every instance above, these are entities you are already paying money to, have paid money to, or are hoping they can separate you from your money. (If anyone thinks the politicos are not already separating you from your money, I cannot help you.)

Last time I checked, most of we, the 400 million users of Facebook, which includes pretty much everyone who has ever written a scathing blog entry about Facebook, are not paying a dime to use Facebook. (Or Google search, Bing, or Yahoo!. If you believe they are not leveraging your search behavior to make the cash register ring, again, I cannot help you.) It stands to reason that entities like Facebook might have to figure out a way to earn a dollar or two in order to continue to operate the server farms, maintain the systems expertise, interfaces and other components that keep a global social network like Facebook running, don’t you think? You can certainly question whether Facebook either misrepresented itself to all 400 million of us -- in effect, said it would not resell our data to advertisers, then did -- or what I believe is closer to the truth, that it never really quite said what it would do with our data, then set about finding ways to “monetize” it (and us).

I think Facebook is the first or at least the most high-profile flash point where the notion that everything on the Internet is (or ought to be) free runs smack into the reality that, without being compensated for what they do, organizations have no reason to exist. I completely understand the point made by one writer that Facebook’s product is the “product,” if you will, of what all of us as users put into it: Our information, photos, posts, the groups we form, and so on. He is correct that Facebook would have little or no value without us. Yet I think a court, which is the venue a lot of people are hoping this will arrive at soon, might just as reasonably find it is a reciprocal arrangement. Facebook paved the highway and 400 million of us are motoring happily away on it. Facebook built what many considered a social media field of dreams, and we came.

The thing is, there are plenty of other places where you can take your social media content out for a spin. There isn’t another place quite like Facebook, you say? Great. Then let’s build one to our own specifications. Let’s gather up all the things we don’t like about Facebook and launch a new site that doesn’t have them. I am completely serious when I invite anyone who has ever written a critical piece about Facebook to contact me (after U.S. East Coast working hours) to begin laying the groundwork for the next great social networking site. It won’t be easy, and we’ll have to figure out how to fund it, but Mark Zuckerberg did and so can we. Maybe these guys will call me, although having raised a reported $137,000, they probably don’t need me or anyone else right about now.

Monumental task? Yes. If that’s too big to take on, what about a User’s Bill of Rights for Facebook and all social networking sites? I’m thinking less of a government thing and more of a code of ethics we collectively expect these sites to live by, the way businesses may comply with the Better Business Bureau -- or not, which tells us all something about that business. Think Facebook should fully disclose how it is providing user data (including anything where you click “Like”) to advertisers? If so, I think we should expect the same of every business. Think it’s ridiculous how, if you want to leave Facebook, it herds you into a dialogue where you “deactivate” your account, then if you don’t touch it for two weeks you are finally “allowed” to leave? Me too. Good thing some helpful bloggers have posted the real delete link, which I’ve included at “Best Facebook links” above. Think it’s wrong that if you do choose to leave Facebook, content you had posted can for all intents and purposes “live on” forever on the system? So do I. It's not as easy as it might seem to eradicate everything, but with proper data tagging and identity tracking -- which Facebook does anyway -- it should be possible.

Maybe a law or code of conduct is too Big Brother or Orwellian, too much intervention into the allegedly wild and free Internet. Maybe the answer is not to try to destroy Facebook by media fiat or turn the Internet into a police state. Maybe we should stop posturing and vote with our feet. If you don’t recognize that phrase it means taking your business, your involvement and your energy elsewhere. When people shop at one store and avoid another, they are voting with their feet. Some places survive and others go out of business. Those who choose to leave Facebook are voting with their feet, and if everybody followed, there would be no Facebook. That’s how it works.

I’m staying on Facebook -- for now. We all now know if we’re on Facebook there is no way to protect even our private user data from Facebook advertising partners. (We should all now know it is no different with any business, or in truth, pretty much any entity of any type that we deal with, including the government.) How best, then, to share our information with only specific users and head off scenarios like the one hilariously depicted here? Facebook has endless tutorials, but I’ve created a single privacy sequence here that will cover what most users are looking to do.

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For years Jeff Cotrupe was the analyst who "named Stratecast but never joined the firm." Those days are over: He has now joined Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan, as Program Director, OSS/BSS Global Competitive Strategies. If you compete in the global communications market, Stratecast offers the critical strategic insights you need to WIN. You can connect with Jeff on all social media sites at XeeSM and follow StratecastF&S and Jeff on Twitter.

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