What Facebook might learn from Gawker

With its latest twists and turns with respect to privacy, is there any way that Facebook can become a brand whose values can truly be known and trusted? As known and trusted as, for example, Gawker's.

As acolytes sat in nodding wonderment listening to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg tell them how the world really is (not very private at all) and how it's going to be (even less private), the people behind Gawker Media were enduring (or perhaps even enjoying) sometimes nasty critiques. They had, after all, revealed something terribly private about one of the world's great personalities, the iPhone.

Many lawyers have opined on the legality of Gawker's actions. I am sure that they are all right. Lawyers always are. At least that's what they tell me. I just wish some of them would get together to make forced opt-ins illegal. Still, what seems more interesting is what the last week said about these two apparently very different brands.

Here's Facebook, a brand that tries to tell you it's doing everything possible for you and only you. It's making the world better. It's making the world more social. Oh, and, unless you know which buttons to click in order to opt out, it's going to be sharing your personal information with all sorts of people with whom you might not want to share even the same ZIP code. Even more helpfully, if you happen not to want your details to creep out, your friends, if they're not so good at navigating the opt-out trickery, just might do it for you. Without knowing it.

But Facebook is doing it for you. "We're going to connect all of those different graphs together to form the Open Graph, and when we connect all of those graphs together, the Web is going to get a whole lot better," beamed Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 conference. How could one disagree? The Web will be getting a whole lot better-- for Facebook.

Perhaps you might struggle to answer this, but have you been spending your life desperate for "Like" buttons all over the Web so that you can discover which of your friends liked a particular article? Or do you tend to find that if your friends like something and want to share it, they, oh, I don't know, send you an e-mail or a tweet, or, hey even a Facebook message with a link?

"Everything I do, I do it for you." CC DeneyTerrio/Flickr

Facebook's every move seems to be geared not to make the user experience richer and more rewarding. It's been geared to making Facebook richer and more rewarded. The saddest part is that if Facebook were only to come clean about a fact that has been so transparently evident ever since its creation of Beacon, then perhaps it might become a slightly different and, dare one say it, more trustworthy brand.

Instead, its justifications seem to have been picked up at the Emperor's New Discount Clothes Store. The so-called Open Graph might just merit an open laugh. Isn't it nothing more than Facebook, taking advantage of the huge numbers who use its site in the belief that it is a private and convenient way of communicating with those closest to them, in order to take their personal information and make money from it?

How do we suspect this might be true? Because of Zuckerberg's insistence that, of course, this isn't the case. After several privacy missteps, isn't suspicion a very natural reaction to every Facebook development?

Please, though you might not want to, contrast this with the allegedly heinous Gawker Media. Here is a brand that is very open about what it is. And it is very open about where its priorities lie. Every customer of Gawker knows precisely what the product is, why they are using it and what to expect. The only surprises with Gawker are when it digs up something even more gossipworthy than the day before.

Gawker understands the part of you that cannot resist it and, with a mercilessness not seen since Genghis Khan got mad and on a horse, it continues to appeal to your amusement at the fickleness of human foibles, your need for the next something that you can talk about to your friends, and even those you really don't like. The relationship between brand and user is clear, consistent and, therefore, functional.

Once you're inside its web, Facebook, unlike Gawker, thinks it can change the rules on you at a whim. First, Facebook declared privacy was sacrosanct. A mere couple of years later, privacy is no longer the social norm. First, Facebook was all about human connections. Now, it seems to be about persuading you that what you really want is a "like" button, what you really want is for any advertiser of Facebook's choosing, not yours, getting your information without you even being aware that this is happening.

Perhaps Facebook's users really don't care. Perhaps this truly is the new reality. One 18-year-old Facebooker told me about having his information passed on: "I assume they're doing it anyway. I just make sure I don't put too much of it out there."

Isn't there one simple human fact that seems to be unaltered by Facebook's peculiarly psychedelic prism? Every human being would like (yes LIKE) to be able to control who sees their personal information and how it is presented. Facebook would like to do the controlling. Actually, Facebook has chosen to do the controlling and the onus on you is to do something about it. Yes, you must opt out of the brave new world, not choose to opt in. (And no one has described how slippery Facebook's opt-out system is more perfectly than CNET's Molly Wood .)

On the other hand, we, the free, would very much like to be open to transfer our data, the data we have built up within Facebook, to other sites. Facebook, in a fit of something that seems weirdly like closed-mindedness, seems rather keen to prevent that. What kind of open graph is that? One in which Facebook has the only pencil to draw on its axes.

Can its users ever now trust Facebook enough? And, if it had just a little more thought for its users, wouldn't gaining that trust have been quite simple?

Let's imagine, just for a moment, that Gawker's Nick Denton was wearing Zuckerberg's trousers. (I suspect they wouldn't be quite the right brand, but, please, work with me here.)

Conscious of what his users expect from his brand, might he have chosen to make one simple announcement: "Look, Facebook isn't and has never been just a place where everyone can connect with each other for free. Get over it. There are half a billion of you out there. We have to pay for servers. We have to pay for people to patrol for hate speech (but we really don't mind if you post your breast-feeding pictures). And we want to make some money ourselves. You wouldn't expect otherwise, would you?"

As the acolytes dared to draw breath, he might have continued: "So the best way we can come up with to make money is ads. If you don't mind your personal information (and we really mean just your name, sex, date of birth and email address and nothing else) being sent to advertisers, then please tick the large, blue box marked YES. Let us know which advertisers are a no-no."

Denton might have continued: "If you do mind your info going to any advertisers, tick the large red box marked NO. The fact is, some people don't mind and some people do, and your choice is all that matters. We'll let you know if we'd like to try something new in the future. But we won't do anything without you ticking a large blue box that says 'YES' once we've given you a couple of short, simple sentences that describes what we're trying to do."

At least then you might know where you stand. At least then you might feel as if you had a clear relationship with Facebook, just as you do with Gawker. And if you didn't like the relationship, Denton's Facebook would, I suspect, give you a simple "I'm out" button to get out. After all, with Gawker, if you don't like it, you can just not read it. Facebook, on the other hand, keeps your information if you leave, just in case, it says, you want to come back.

Oh, I know some might hiss, boo, or chuckle. But I am simply talking about the relationship the Gawker brand has with its constituency, its readers. If you look at Gawker's privacy policy, you'll find it remarkably succinct. It even includes quite an interesting phrase: "Your personal and contact information will not be passed to any other organization." Doesn't that feel quaint and strangely human?

If I were a very clever engineer coming out of Harvard or even out of a three-year, drug-fueled stupor, the one thing I'd be trying to create right now is a social network that doesn't obfuscate to its users. Because it knows it doesn't need to. A gold mine, if you ask me.

 

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