Tracking the online behaviours of individuals has never been harder. Not only is this the age of multi-device Internet usage -- where people turn to a range of browsers and devices to get online each day -- but GlobalWebIndex's latest data shows that significant minorities of Internet users are deliberately deleting cookies or turning to VPNs and other anti-tracking tools in order to remain anonymous.
It is in this context that Atlas, Facebook's new advertising platform, makes its entrance. Clearly, the social networking giant is pretty pleased with its latest offering. In addition to using the information it knows about a user from Facebook to target them while they browse other Web sites or use third-party apps, Atlas overcomes the problem of having to rely on cookies. It thus represents a particularly significant leap forward in terms of mobile tracking -- an area where third-party cookies have been made redundant through restrictions at the operating-system level, such as those on iOS devices, among others.
If we bear in mind that more than 4 in 5 adult Internet users outside of China currently have a Facebook account -- and hence have handed over basic demographic information about themselves as well as a degree of behavioral data derived from their usage habits -- the potential reach and accuracy of Atlas is pretty impressive. Sure, some of the most determined users will opt out of the functionality. But as with other anti-tracking behaviors, they are likely to be in the minority; subtract this group from Facebook's membership base and Atlas’ audience is still vast. No wonder it has been seen by many as a direct challenge to Google's DoubleClick platform then, or heralded as one of the best solutions yet to the difficulties of understanding today's multi-device Internet users -- able to marry up visits made in different browsers and across different devices.
But Facebook still has a number of problems to overcome -- and one of the biggest of these is typified by Ello. Dubbed the “anti-Facebook” by journalists -- who were quick to pounce on the fact that at one point, it was reportedly receiving 37,000 requests to join per hour -- Ello has been pretty smart in its positioning. Distinguishing itself as a genuine social network rather than an “ad platform” like Facebook, visit the Ello Web site at the moment and you’re immediately told that “your social network is owned by advertisers. Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.”
GWI’s research shows why this message is likely to resonate strongly: in the UK, a significant three-quarters of Facebook users believe that “Facebook has no right to use my personal information to sell advertising.” Now, there will always be a certain disconnect between what Internet users say and what they actually do as a result; expressed concerns about online privacy and data protection will not always translate into any reactionary day-to-day behaviours. And it's worth noting that this is not a problem that Facebook alone needs to tackle; arguably, it's a fairly wide range of companies operating free data-driven services that need to do a (much) better job of educating Internet users about why usage of their data is essential. People need to understand that there’s a tradeoff involved, and feel reassured that their information is being anonymised.
But while Facebook might not be the only tech brand in the frame here, it has quickly become an easy and popular target -- an area where its seemingly constant backtracking on previous privacy and data policies really isn’t helping. It’s certainly telling that at present, just a quarter of its active UK users agree that they are happy for “Facebook and Whatsapp to use my personal information as long as I can use their services for free.” This has to rise -- and considerably so -- if Facebook is to continue on its current path without causing discontent.
In all likelihood, Ello itself is unlikely to trouble Facebook too much, especially if the rather buggy and simplistic design of its current iteration is not overhauled soon. It has succeeded in being a source of interest, but the swaths of Ello-related comments on Facebook itself is testament to the fact that we’re not exactly seeing a mass exodus to the newest network on-the-block. In today’s multi-networking world, it has a better chance of becoming another service that people might use, rather than a direct alternative.
The hype surrounding Ello does, however, expose two real issues for Facebook.
First, that many of its existing members are so incredibly keen to check out an alternative platform has to be a concern. While even the most contented user base might be curious to have a look at a new network, serious numbers of the comments being posted online at the moment are pretty united in their dislike of Facebook. Sizable segments appear to be using Facebook not out of any fondness but because they feel they have to -- it’s where their friends and family are, or they feel they have too much accumulated history on the site to say goodbye to it. They might not be planning to leave, but they’re hardly singing Facebook’s praises either. For many, it has become a loveless relationship of convenience.
Secondly, it was remarkably easy for Ello and others to caricature Facebook as little more than an ad platform. For proof of this, just look at how extraordinarily quick everyone was to accept the idea that Facebook members might want to leave to embrace something better. In short, Facebook has changed and evolved so much -- and become so focused on its numbers and ad performance -- that it sometimes feels like it has forgotten that it’s still supposed to be a social network.
Of course, Facebook doesn’t need its members to love it. But it would certainly do well to stem the current tide of anti-Facebook sentiment and to prevent users from beginning to hate it. While the industry is clearly excited about Atlas -- as demonstrated by the names which have already signed up -- we really shouldn’t be ignoring the attitudes of consumers on the ground. For its users, Facebook needs to stop being so visibly commercial and get back to being a little more social.