Facebook's Makeover: Breakthrough or Big Brother?
Last week Facebook announced its new Timeline feature, which makes it easier for users to see what people in their network are doing, reading, and listening to.
The Washington Post has called the result "a comprehensive and curated version of your entire history on Facebook." The feature is now optional, but will eventually become Facebook's default profile.
The new developments at Facebook bring at least three important advantages to marketers.
MARKETING ADVANTAGE #1: MORE RELEVANT MESSAGING. The redesign and the new media partnerships that follow in its wake make it easier for marketers to launch more targeted, relevant marketing mesages to Facebook users, based on the increased number of preference points users are able to express. Most consumers, I think, would prefer to see relevant advertising than be forced to pay for all the services and content they are getting via Facebook.
MARKETING ADVANTAGE #2: A BETTER ENVIRONMENT FOR ON-LINE PUBLISHERS. Both Timeline and the new emphasis on Facebook apps help publishers of free content to create more diverse offerings and to reach a broader audience. One entrepreneur I spoke to observed: "As a publisher of free content, I don't think people necessarily have a right to consume anything and everything they want on line, all the time, at no cost. There is a cost. What Facebook or any provider is really saying to you every time it lets you access all this incredible content without charging you for it is, 'If you are going to use this service, we need to know a lot about you for targeted, relevant advertisers to take action on -- because that's the best way we know of to keep our service free for you.' "
MARKETING ADVANTAGE #3: ONE STEP AT A TIME. Facebook is doing both marketers and consumers a big favor by rolling out Timeline slowly. Everybody who uses Facebook needs time to become familiar with the new features. (Here's an overview from Business Insider of the upcoming changes.) A whole lot is changing here; at the same time, though, most of the users I have spoken to seem to feel that the new features are simply a logical extension of the kind of sharing that people are already used to on Facebook. The whole company, after all, is premised on giving people the opportunity to share a wide array of information.
Even with these advantages, however, I am concerned about two issues.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN #1: NO EASY OPT-OUT. Facebook users, in my opinion, must already jump through too many hoops in order to stop sharing information about their behavior and choices with marketers. It seems likely that this trend will continue with Timeline, and that the only realistic way of "opting out" of a given campaign will be to quit using Facebook altogether.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN #2: PRIVACY PROBLEMS? I am no expert in the privacy field, but a rising chorus of concern from people who are experts suggests that Timeline presents some troubling "Big Brother" questions about consumer privacy (See these posts from the Washington Post and ZDnet, for two good discussions of some of the as-yet-unresolved privacy issues.)
After every major redesign of Facebook, privacy concerns tend to loom large, and then fade into obscurity. That may well happen this time around, too ... but Facebook should still do a better job of contributing to the debate and explaining how it plans to protect user privacy.