Facebook Beacon: The Great Privacy PR Stunt

Matthew Magain

Here’s my take on Facebook Beacon, the recent feature added to the popular social networking site Facebook for informing one’s friends about activities on an external site: the controversy was orchestrated.

Last week the feature was scaled back due to privacy concerns, but I can’t help but think that this wasn’t all part of Facebook’s grand master plan.

Before you get your flame torches out, no, this is not a statement based on fact. It’s an opinion. A supposition based on the fact that Beacon is a disruptive innovation that, by design, pushes the envelope for just how much advertising one can take in one’s personal feed.

I’m convinced that the Facebook team — a team that understands better than most just how to successfully build an enormous community — anticipated this backlash, but decided to run with it anyway.

Developing a Facebook app to promote your site is one thing. But since when did breaking down a walled garden entail breaking down the very last strands of privacy to which users of the Web cling?

The debacle reminds me of a few cliches that occur regularly in the world of politics. One is the phrase “any PR is good PR”. The attention and traffic is no doubt resulting in a bunch of new advertisers signing up to advertise on Beacon — probably more so than if they had been no controversy at all.

The second parallel is a classic two-pronged distraction used in the world of politics all the time: if you offer two controversies at the same time, one will absorb all of the focus while the other slips through. In this case, the fact that Beacon is, in reality, just another advertising program billed as a “feature”, is overshadowed by the privacy concerns raised by over 50,000 Facebook users who signed a petition to respect their privacy.

Tell me Facebook aren’t thinking along the lines of “If we push the envelope of what is acceptable in terms of our users’ privacy, maybe they won’t notice that they’re suddenly getting more ads in their feed! Then we can act like we listen to our users, and come out of it the good guys!”. The partners who have signed up are notably silent on the matter.

What do you think?

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  • Someone who knows the PR firm

    No. Not planned. Worst handling of public relations around a new feature/product I have ever seen.

    -Someone who knows the Facebook PR firm and knows crisis meetings were happening the day of the apology. Sad day for the PR profession.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com Simon Mackie

    Interesting theory. But given the number of parties involved, I think it was just a monumental balls-up (and quite possibly illegal according to the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988.)

  • http://www.terminalfuture.com/ eljefe

    I agree to some extent, the issue is they are taking it a bit too fast IMHO.

    But still, looking back, there was an even bigger backlash on the feeds and now, everyone’s cool with the feeds.

    I predict in a few months, everyone will be complacent with beacon.

  • Kyle Spector

    The big question is what this could mean for the future of Web 2.0 advertising. We commented on it here: http://changewaves.socialtechnologies.com/home/2007/12/6/st-in-the-news-facebooks-fumble.html

  • http://www.realityedge.com.au mrsmiley

    For one or two people to be ignorant of the impending backlash is one thing, for an entire company + shareholders (eg. Microsoft et al) to be totally ignorant of the matter is something else altogether.

    Orchestrated or accidental, I’d subscribe to that theory in part. Although the way it was handled has left Mark looking like the goose in this instance because of a) delayed reaction and b) his stage presence leaves a lot to be desired. Sure they did admit they did something bad though, which actually turns them into good guys somehow. I wonder many times you could try a trick like that before everyone gives up

  • http://www.mikehealy.com.au cranial-bore

    Given the Facebook terms of use the company is probably of the impression that they can do anything they want with no ill consequences ever. They may have been surprised to learn that some Facebook users pay attention to their privacy.

    Facebook would sell children if it were profitable enough.

  • http://www.bam.com.au miles

    That is a very good spin on it Matt, however I wouldn’t give them that much credit for such sophisticated foresight. However, next time you see someone do this, you’re in trouble for first suggesting it, heh!