When a snot-nosed and wet behind the ears 23 year old tells the world at a media junket how the advertising industry needs to listen to him, you wonder what authority he has to do that. His grand message is that ‘the next hundred years will be different for advertising, and it starts today’.
How did he get away with that, without being booed out of the venue one wonders? I suppose, if you are Mr Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, you could conceivably be arrogant enough to think you are the online marketing guru. Certainly the numbers of people belonging to his social network and the continuing growth in numbers could give him the illusion that he is an expert now.
However, having a site that allows people to join for free and which gives them a few toys to play with does not necessarily spell online marketing expert. It could just mean being at the right cyberspace moment in time. So what did he launch and how long did the bubble of hype last for?
On November 6, 2007 in New York, The Facebook Roadshow lead by Zuckerberg presented their new social advertising products/concepts. There were three items presented, of which only Beacon is of immediate interest. Beacon, I suppose based on the lighthouse concept where a beam of light is the publicity tool, is a way for Facebook members to tell their online friends what brands they are fans of.
However, that is a rather simplified explanation of what Beacon is all about. It’s really a very intrusive way of advertising. Participating marketers or commercial partners install the Beacon Code on their site for which I would imagine they pay a hefty price.
The Beacon Code’s purpose is to send information. Visitors to the merchant sites which are using the Beacon Code have their machines checked to see if they have a valid Facebook cookie. If yes, the Beacon Code sends info to Facebook via the user.
When users log in, they are supposedly presented with a message asking them to allow the data to be pulled in. If they allow this then the mini-feed of info is presented to their Facebook friends on the main landing page.
In itself there is nothing new to this. Endorsements of products, services or businesses by people, most often by celebrities, have been around for years. Of course they usually get paid fat fees for endorsing a product. Check what Roger Federer and Tiger Woods earn on these types of deals. So why the Zuckerberg youngster feels that he is so unique is quite beyond me.
But what is probably the real nasty here is the fact that as a Facebook member the onus is on the member to opt out of the scheme. By default, the Facebook members become advertising spokespeople.
Facebook designed Beacon in such a way that members would only be able to opt out. But the opt-out windows were hard to see and disappeared very fast. If you weren’t quick enough your purchases and merchant preferences were broadcast to your Facebook friends. No more surprise gifts it seemed.
The question this poses is who owns the default option? Or in plain English, who decides whether the user has to opt out to avoid an action targeted at them, or is asked whether he wishes to opt in. Users would generally be less inclined to opt in when their personal information would be divulged.
The other question that needs to be answered is who owns the information. With other words, if somebody followed you around in a shopping mall recording every visit and purchase you made, whose information would that be? Surely there is no doubt that one would have ownership over ones own spending preferences? Such activity would commonly be called stalking.
It seems not. By implementing Beacon, that information has become Facebook’s to sell to advertisers. Outright theft I would imagine. What is probably more shocking, if examined a little closer, is the fact that this kind of theft of information is what Zuckerberg was showing off about.
Isn’t it scary when a business person can publicly proclaim that the way to do business in the next 100 years is by stealing information from people? The implicit contract between Facebook and its members is that the members’ information is confidential. Facebook attempted to monetize and sell this implicit contract.
What thwarted Facebook was that members realised that their private information was being used for gain. The whole point of Facebook is that you have a social networking space where you can safely share information and interact with other people whom you have invited or have allowed to become your friends.
It took less than a month for the Beacon bubble to burst. With pressure from Moveon.org and general hot air in the blogosphere, Facebook had to back down and has now made Beacon an opt in application.
Beacon was a clumsy effort to redefine the concept of discretion and to profit off the new definition. Regrettably this will not be the only time that business will bend and invent new rules and laws to try and cash in on the internet user. In fact, at this stage of the game, all bets are off. Internet users, beware! The party has only just begun.