Spam Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

The fact that Facebook deserves real credit for what it has managed to build to date makes the whole Beacon farce that much more intriguing, shocking, laughable and woeful -- but never dull. From the moment of the doom-laden project's announcement (filled as it was with that wonderful mix of hubris and hype that precedes an embarrassed whimper) to the swift U-turn and mea culpa, the whole thing has -- sadly -- been a text book example of how to over-promise, under-deliver and damage the brand all at once.

Undoubtedly, there is now a room somewhere in Facebook Towers where a select handful of formerly high-flying execs (scapegoats) now spend their time hanging idly by their thumbs to keep them from doing more harm while the company continues to try to undo the damage caused by what has been one of the most unfortunate so-called "advertising" initiatives of recent times (assuming one can call something so obviously devoid of initiative and common sense as an "initiative").

Far from being the most significant and impactful thing in advertising for the next 100 years, Beacon will soon be forgotten and consigned to the media industry's recycle bin. On the one hand, this is entirely understandable. On the other, it's something of a shame, as we need to recall our mistakes and what makes them so in order to learn -- painful though they may be. After all, if Facebook hadn't tried this, maybe somebody else would be cooking up something similar as we speak (indeed, who's to say that some secret plans from among the ranks of detractors haven't been destroyed, CIA-style, in the hope no one ever finds out they existed).



There are of course, plenty of lessons to be learned from all of this, most of which have been written about pretty extensively. However, while much of the commentary has focused on the concerns of those whose shopping information is being distributed to their various Facebook Friends, little seems to have been said about the poor bastards who would -- if Beacon actually delivered on its promise -- find themselves on the receiving end of a growing torrent of quasi-personalized spam. For while Beacon was touted as some kind of reinvention of advertising, it was far closer to a reinvention -- and sanitation -- of spam.

Example: Let's assume that MediaPost's esteemed and respected editor in chief, Joe Mandese, and I are Facebook Friends (we're not). Much as I love and admire him, the fact that he may have just bought some new shoes, a couple of shirts for work, a plane ticket and a DVD could not interest me less (sorry, Joe). None of it has any relevance whatsoever to the basis of our relationship, our shared interests and so on. The fact that an organization that is promoting itself to me does so by hijacking a permission-based channel that I use to communicate with someone I have some sort of relationship of choice with doesn't make it any less intrusive than ordinary spam. Indeed, it may be more objectionable, since it tries to wrap itself in a cloak of respectability by leveraging that relationship as if the person was actually sending the message. Pretty transparent and destined to alienate me as the recipient, let alone the sender.

But aside from the implications for Facebook and anyone else under pressure to monetize social networks, there are perhaps some intriguing issues lurking within that apply to other media.

To date we have thought of spam as being an inevitable curse of being online and having an email account. Granted, one could argue that much of the paper that gets shoved into your (physical) mailbox can be defined as junk mail (and is by consumers) and therefore is merely the forefather of spam. But after more than a decade of mass market interactivity across an increasingly wide number of screen-based devices, people have become increasingly habituated to the reality behind the mantra of more choice, control and convenience. The result for many consumers is an attitude informed by their experiences of being able to click, fast-forward, skip, share, post and more, using screens that were previously associated only with passive consumption. Not only has this control opened up a world of opportunity, but also one of intolerance (or at least impatience) with forced consumption of that which is unsought.

While spam is an obvious candidate for our outpourings of vitriol, at a lesser level, much of the advertising we encounter is surely just a less objectionable version of the same thing. With very few exceptions, it's intrusive, not what we are typically looking for, often not relevant and occasionally annoying (or more than occasionally, depending on the individual).

Right now we naturally define spam rather narrowly and by the platform through which it has entered our lives. But some of its characteristics are neither new nor exclusive. Elements of spam exist across other forms of communication on different platforms. As more platforms become interactively enabled and mature to the point that advertising dollars start flowing toward them, they -- like Facebook -- will come under pressure to develop and exploit innovative ways to monetize the user base.

Imagine the delights and temptations that accompany the activation of the digital return path on the nation's TVs. Then imagine an indeterminate time in the future when an array of currently unavailable and maybe un-thought-of capabilities have become familiar and habitually used by a large number of people (social networks on your TV -- can you rule it out?). Will the execs at that time look back over their shoulder and recall what Facebook tried and what didn't work (and maybe how they fixed it)? Or will they do what people in that situation normally do? Namely, focus on what technology has made possible and the pressure to generate revenues while allowing themselves to believe that the last part of the equation -- the consumer -- will comply with the business plan, because that's how it's been designed to work (and because the prospects of noncompliance don't bear thinking about).

I'd like to think that won't be the case (and I'm a firm believer in what the return path will mean in time for all sides of the TV industry). However, after all those failed manifestations of "push marketing" back in '97, I would have told you then that something like Beacon could never happen.

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