Is it any surprise that Facebook is once again under scrutiny for how it handles users' data?
This time, the issue centers on messages that users send to each other through Facebook. Turns out that the social networking service has been scanning users' messages to see whether they include any links. If so, the company interprets the link as a "like," though it doesn't publicly identify the user who sent the message.
For instance, if you send a Facebook friend a message that includes a link to this page, created by researcher Ashkan Soltani, the number of "likes" on Soltani's page will increase. But the fact that you liked the page won't be added to your public profile.
For its part, Facebook tells The Wall Street Journal that no private information is exposed, but confirms that the Like-counter "reflects the number of times people have clicked those buttons and also the number of times people have shared that page’s link on Facebook."
But even if Facebook isn't revealing private information, the company certainly could have been more upfront with users about this feature, rather than having them learn about it in the press.
Beyond any privacy issues, this revelation also raises questions about the value of a "like."
Until now, the number of "likes" a brand (or piece of content) amasses appeared to reflect the number of people who were willing to publicly associate their names with that brand.
But that definition clearly doesn't work any longer. Instead, the number of "likes" also includes people who had no idea they were beefing up a brand's stats. Some of those people might be fans, but others might have sent a friend a link in order to voice a complaint, mock an article, or otherwise bash the company they were inadvertently "liking."
In other words, a Facebook "like" could just as easily mean "dislike." If that's how Facebook wants to run its service, it can. But the company needs to let consumers as well as marketers know in advance. That way, users can decide whether or not they want to include links in messages -- and be counted among those who "like" a page -- and companies can better evaluate what their Faceboook "likes" really mean.