Commentary

Maybe Facebook Should Be Renamed About-Facebook

Oh, boy, has it been another fun week at Facebook. In case you never read back to the beginning of it all, earlier this month the company quietly changed its terms of service, to say that Facebook users were now granting "Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense)" to do whatever it wanted with anything they posted. (The story broke over the weekend because, thought it may take awhile, there are actually people who read terms of service.)

By early this morning, Facebook had, not surprisingly, reconsidered -- returning, temporarily, to its old TOS while it works on new ones. (Can't wait to see what the new ones are.). But, gee, it's pretty hard to figure out what the point of the whole go-around was in the first place. Before Facebook made this latest about-face (strangely reminiscent of other Facebook about-faces I could mention),   Mark Zuckerberg was saying that, despite the new TOS, there was actually no change to the company ethos "that people own their information and control who they share it with ... " If Facebook was really planning on changing its TOS so that it had the rights to user content, what to make of that statement?

It's almost as though Facebook got hold of the standard freelance writer contract and slipped it into the TOS just to see if anyone would notice.

As all of us know by now, someone did. I saw one estimate that traffic to Consumerist's original post breaking the story  reached 300,000, and another that that one post resulted in more than 750 news stories around the globe. This reminds me a bit of David Ogilvy, who once said, "The consumer is not a moron, she's your wife." I'd like to think that if D.O. were alive today he might add, "And she's got a megaphone."

You could wonder if, ironically enough, Facebook understands the power of its user base. But after this, the Beacon controversy of 2007  and the News Feed controversy of 2006, it's something worth pondering. I feel for Facebook execs in that users seem to blame the service if they stub their toes on a table leg on their way to logging on, but at least three such about-faces isn't just a trend, it's a degree of tone-deafness. Maybe this latest controversy happened because the voices of users are becoming white noise.

Fortunately, Zuckerberg says that as the company works to alter its TOS in coming weeks, "users will have a lot of input in crafting these terms." That's great, but it looks as though users are already giving their input.

I don't know if I've really broken any ground with this column, which is not something I care to admit. It's just that the change in terms of service and resulting backlash all seems so obvious, even without hindsight. There isn't anything here that any of us, or Facebook, shouldn't already have known.

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10 comments about "Maybe Facebook Should Be Renamed About-Facebook".
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  1. Meredith Obendorfer from DKC, February 18, 2009 at 4:47 p.m.

    I'm not sure it's a trend of tone-deafness so much as it is Facebook still not realizing that the world watches their every move. And it's not necessarily a bad thing-- Facebook is so ingrained in folks' lives these days, and not just college kids a la the News Feed crisis in 2006 (disclaimer: I was on Facebook's PR account at the time), and many of those 127 million users have such a passion that when something isn't quite right, it creates a media storm. Reminds me of how David Pogue at the NY Times tries to escape the scathing wrath of Apple fans if he critiques their latest product. However, the difference between the "old" established players of tech-- Apple, Google, Microsoft-- and Facebook is the former would just tell its users/fans to simply "deal with it" while Facebook tries to please everyone. Not sure that's the best press policy, but it might be the best user policy in the long run.

  2. James Nail from Forrester Research, February 18, 2009 at 5:07 p.m.

    The power of users is key. What's to stop them now from demanding a share of any revenue on their page? Check out my blog http://bit.ly/J5Dvs

  3. Michael Kaleikini from One Solution, LLC, February 18, 2009 at 5:09 p.m.

    I wonder what will happen when they do implement the new TOS. If it comes out in a couple months it will be because the users are going to not agree on everything and will push for a lot less "grip" by facebook and more in their control. So what we're about to see is a battle of wills. And as stated above if they took the "deal with it" attitude they'd end up as corporate as Myspace. (which is why I don't frequent them much any more) Let's see how this shakes out.

  4. Brogan Keane from Fuego Nation, Inc., February 18, 2009 at 5:10 p.m.

    With the 'People Against the New Terms of Service (TOS) group on Facebook about to tip 100,000 members in less than a week, I'm imagining that a group called "People Against Facebook Charging us for Anything" will spring up just a few fleeting moments after the company tries to definitively stem the flow of red ink. It seems that Facebook has a difficult time envisioning the consumer reaction to its many major moves. Perhaps soliciting pre-release response from a handful of the 127 million folks at hand might be a smart move. More worrisome is the precedent of one's non-paying user base forcing instantaneous policy retraction in such a large company. A major challenge with monetization in social media is the assumptive devaluation of services that have intrinsic and real value. To date, this is one of Facebook's greatest accomplishments. What will the reaction be once Facebook decides it 'needs' to charge for premium photo storage space, specialized connections, etc. I think Facebook is a terrific product for maintaining friendships virtually but when you create definable and absolute value for consumers, but do not require any form of payment in kind, you risk backing yourself into a tight monetization corner.

  5. Julie Roth from cyberROTH Interactive Solutions, February 18, 2009 at 5:20 p.m.

    Much of your assessment may, indeed, be warranted. But I don't believe it's the only way of interpreting events.

    When you state, "at least three such about-faces isn't just a trend, it's a degree of tone-deafness," you could just as plausibly asserted that "at least three such about-faces isn't just a trend, it's a statement about the importance Facebook ascribes to its customers."

    Seems to me that a company that tries things (however daring or bone-headed), listens to its customers, and instantly responds to customer feedback is a company that is to be praised on at least one front.

  6. Mitchel Ahern from One to One Interactive, February 18, 2009 at 6:33 p.m.

    How long before these frustrations lead to an open source distributed P2P "Facebook-like" protocol that starts to siphon off users?

  7. Mike Brewer from The M Group, February 18, 2009 at 9:26 p.m.

    I have to agree with Mitchel on this. Consumer/Users/Creators will only tolerate so much before they look for and or create the next amazing medium.

  8. John Ingham from John INgham, February 19, 2009 at 3:40 a.m.

    My uncle, who used to be president of IBM Australia among his many successes, maintained it took 3 months to destroy a company's reputation. A VC in Robert Cringeley's 'Revenge Of The Nerds' maintains that "someone who starts a company is not necessarily the best person to run a company." Zuckerberg wins on both counts.

  9. William Houghton from Project Amuso, Ltd., February 19, 2009 at 5:35 a.m.

    Having managed several start-ups, I can definitely say that TOS contracts are typically written by lawyers because Biz folk are preoccupied with products and marketing. Lawyers, on the other hand, are paid to protect their clients from ANY conceivable dispute.

    In this case, lawyers are protecting Facebook from the inevitable future lawsuit in which a user sues because the fotos he shared on site ended up on some stranger's page, and he couldn't get them back. Well, no duh! Once you share your content with the world, the world tends to hold onto it. No givesees-backsees, as my 5yr old says.

    What's a lawyer to do to head off the lawsuit? Simple -- add some basic TOS text that says "Anything you share with the community becomes property of the community (in this case defined as the FB platform) and don't plan on having any future control over it."

    Makes perfect sense to me.

    I think it's a recognized phenomenon that every document placed in the hands of a layer grows by 10% during each iteration. Sometimes difference between Heaven and Hell is about 10%.

  10. Swag Valance from Trash, Inc., February 20, 2009 at 12:29 p.m.

    But you're all missing that violating their customer's preferences for privacy is built into Facebook's DNA.

    As pointed out with Beacon, news feeds, etc. -- this is hardly the first time this has happened. It seems to be Screech's (Zuckerberg's) job to push the envelope, outrage a number of users, and then pull back just enough this side of the user comfort level with a "whoops! sorry about that!" and letting his age and looks get away with "I'm new at this, forgive me". In some ways, it's a clever ploy to push their users as far as they can take it before they scream.

    I'd like to believe that the old rules of not offending your customers still apply here, but thus far Facebook has years of unqualified success getting away with it. You cannot deny that. It's not like any of this has slowed their juggernaut down any. Until that happens, these behaviors within the company will continue as they push boundaries and opt to ask for forgiveness more than permission.

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