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Why you shouldn't believe 'Facebook backlash' numbers

Some statistics say Facebook is at risk of having members quit en masse. Others say it's still growing like a weed. Which do you take as the truth? For now, it's neither.

If anybody is telling you right now that they have conclusive evidence that there either is or isn't a real backlash against Facebook over its latest privacy debacle, you shouldn't believe that evidence. Right now, there is no set of numbers that can prove it either way.

Concerns about social network Facebook's regard for member privacy have been all over the media ever since the company's F8 conference a month ago--where Facebook debuted modified privacy settings, as well as deeper ways for third-party partners to tap into its network of social connections. Yet some are now wondering if that crisis is restricted to the media itself. Prominent tech industry figures like Leo Laporte, Peter Rojas, and Jason Calacanis have announced that they're deleting their profiles, but how does this explain some numbers that say the social network's still growing like a weed?

Facebook Vice President Christopher Cox was featured on a panel at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York on Tuesday, and while the topic was ostensibly mobile development, the issue of Facebook privacy was unavoidable. During a question-and-answer period following the panel, a conference attendee stood up, introduced himself as a high-school student and asked the panel whether they thought the current controversy was legitimate or whether it was actually just stoked by the insular community of Silicon Valley elite talking about account deletion. His classmates, he said, didn't care at all about Facebook's recent changes.

Cox's response was that the company takes those member concerns seriously and that they are, in fact, very real--and that Facebook's simplified privacy controls would be coming out as early as Wednesday, rather than a few weeks down the line as the company had originally announced. (Facebook has since announced a press event that will be held Wednesday and where Zuckerberg and other senior executives will discuss details of the new controls.) But the same day, a Fortune article asked "What backlash?" and said that since the F8 conference on April 21, Facebook had added 10 million new members to its user base.

But on the other hand, security firm Sophos found that 60 percent of Facebook members polled said they had considered deleting their accounts. These sets of numbers seem to contradict one another.

To put it bluntly, there is no set of numbers right now that will accurately represent Facebook members' reactions to the present privacy debacle. That's because at this point, the easiest numbers for gauging any kind of legitimate member backlash against Facebook are to look at traffic, or account deletion, and we don't conclusively have either of those numbers. That doesn't mean Facebook's off the hook with regard to member dissatisfaction.

The best indication of concern about Facebook and how it handles user privacy is not a quantifiable one. The lack of alternatives to Facebook--as well as the many legitimately good things that the service does, from event organization to keeping in touch with old friends--means that many dissatisfied members probably will not delete their accounts altogether. It's more likely that they may be clamping down on privacy controls, deleting information that has been defaulted to public (the "interests" section, for example), or taking additional privacy-conscious steps like deleting old photo albums. There's not a good way for market research firms, pollsters, or pundits to find this out. It could very well still be happening.

The reason for Facebook to be concerned is that many of these actions that members could be taking will make their profiles less valuable to advertisers because they'll be chipping away at "engagement," that magic factor that Facebook execs love to hold up. If you delete information on your profile, it's tougher to target ads. If you're deleting a friend from your contacts list, that's one fewer News Feed that your Facebook-connected third-party actions will show up in--and so forth. That's something that I'm sure has been the topic of many a discussion internally at Facebook over the past few weeks, and maintaining engagement levels could indeed be very central to the company's current decision-making process.

But the point remains that numbers about the presence or lack of a mass exodus at Facebook are going to be inconclusive right now. It's sort of like the old saying: there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.