Facebook Beacon: The Great Privacy PR Stunt

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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?

Matthew MagainMatthew Magain
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Matthew Magain is a UX designer with over 15 years of experience creating exceptional digital experiences for companies such as IBM, Australia Post, and sitepoint.com. He is currently the Chief Doodler at Sketch Group, Co-founder of UX Mastery, and recently co-authored Everyday UX, an inspiring collection of interviews with some of the best UX Designers in the world. Matthew is also the creator of Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

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