Like Beacon, Facebook’s ‘News Feed’ feature was also hated to begin with too

(disclosure: I am currently helping MySpace – a Facebook competitor – with their platform strategy)

Around this time last year Facebook released a feature on profile pages called “News Feeds”, which allowed a user to see all of the updates and interactions their friends were doing with the site.

Esteemed industry observers such as danah boyd (whose work I very much admire) immediately took issue with it. In her essay ‘Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama’ danah concluded:

“Facebook says that the News Feed is here to say. This makes me sad. I understand why they want to provide it, i understand what users are tempted by it. But i also think that it is unhealthy, socially disruptive, and far worse for the users than the lurking employers ready to strike down upon thee with great vengeance for the mere presence of a red plastic cup.

Facebook lost some of its innocence this week. Even when things return to “normal,” a scar will persist. Yet, the question remains: what will the long-term social effects of this “privacy trainwreck” be?”

Well, that ‘News Feed’ feature is pretty much became corner-stone of what we’ve all grown to love as as the ‘social graph’. It’s the textbook example of how we view and interact with our social graphs and derive the value from them.

It’s actually fair to say that danah’s views on the lost privacy from this feature were mainly accurate, and yet it’s a feature most of us enjoy using and consider positive and useful. Whole industries are forming to capitalize on making the most out of the data created with what was once called ‘a trainwreck’.

What’s so different about Beacon?

And so it is with the above example in mind that I am very curious around the pushback Facebook’s Beacon received.

It’s been very interesting to read the reaction to it – mainly that people feel it is an invasion of privacy, especially online activist group MoveOn.org who described it as a “glaring violation of (Facebook’s) users’ privacy” (sounds familiar).

How is this any different to Facebook’s “News Feeds” feature (ie Social Graph)? In fact the social objects being modeled by Beacon are inanimate retail items rather than other people, as per “News Feeds”. With the “News Feed” feature both the friended and the profile owner potentially had their privacy lost. With Beacon it’s just the profile owner. Britney Spear’s latest album is not going to be embarrassed if the world (or just my friend circle) learns I just bought it.

The one thing which I do dislike is the way in which the data is collected, especially that it is off-site via remote javascript loads. But once the data is on my Facebook profile I find it hard to argue that it is any less deserving to be exposed (within my circle of friends) then who I just friended or which photos I just uploaded, etc.

And if the social graph has let me discover cool, relevant, new applications to add to my profile based on the apps my friends are adding then why can’t it let me discover new purchases I might like to buy based on what my friends are buying?

Facebook is a commercial company that needs to generate revenue, and in many ways this seems far more useful than plain-old blanket advertising coverage. I too want to dislike Beacon, yet the logic required seems difficult to muster.

The one thing that I would like to see from Facebook is a way to export this purchasing data, in the same way that I would like Facebook to be more open with the social graph data too. It’s my data after all. APML would be a great edition here.

3 thoughts on “Like Beacon, Facebook’s ‘News Feed’ feature was also hated to begin with too

  1. I don’t agree, I think the difference between beacon data and other ‘profile’ data on the FB news feed is huge – for a couple of reasons: user expectation, and opt-in vs opt-out.

    When I put/change some info on my FB profile I know its going to be made public. That is what the user expects to happen – and they opt-in their data to be used.

    Purchasing/viewing/playing/whatever something on a site unrelated to FB, then having that data in the news feed is unexpected, and appears to occur automatically leaving the user to have to opt-out (via a checkbox, from what I’ve seen).

  2. I must agree that Beacon flagrantly violates users’ expectations. When people browse around the web, the last thing they expect to see is an unrelated site telling them they’re sending information about their activities to their Facebook account. In the minds of users, a site is a site, all of them discrete. The idea that Facebook knows what you’re doing elsewhere on the web is frightening to them, and rightfully so. It’s even worse that consent is assumed. They could just as easily not show the little notification in the corner, and not show information about it in news feeds, and just surreptitiously collect information on everyone’s activities around the web, leaving them none the wiser. Beacon functions more like an XSS attack. That’s what people are afraid of.

    I think a more suitable analogy to news feeds could be made if Facebook had added an API, or perhaps just an RSS feed, that allowed users to embed their news feeds off-site and opted their friends into it by default. That would be a violation of privacy and expectations of a similar magnitude.

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