Mark Zuckerberg :: Facebook Mea Culpa

I know. This is an old topic. It has been burning a hole in my drafts section. I will note that since this controversy, there have only been two posts in the Facebook blog – neither dealing with this issue. One is Musings of a Facebook Engineer about a new toy to play with and the other is about politics and Facebook – The Race Is On.

I leave the post as I initially wrote it. However, the anger and uprising in the Facebook community seems to have settled a bit.

I post this now for my students as I beileve the incident raises important planning and research issues for any project/campaign.

Mark Zuckerberg has two dreams. Well, actually it is more like two billion dreams. That’s how much he allegedly believes Facebook’s valuation for acquisition should be – while passing up a reported $750 million buyout attempt. Mark Zuckerberg also thinks he owns Facebook. Um, not exactly, Mark.

…this will look like some of the pullquotes and styles we see in magazine layouts…

He received a brutal wake-up call telling him that he (a) does not own Facebook (the users do) and (b) that he may have actually harmed that two-billion dollar valuation dream by his own actions (failing to properly manage the launch of new features). The blog posts citing the Facebook controversy are available in that link.

On Sept. 5th, Facebook launched some new RSS feed features that really hacked off their user base. That post, by Ruchi Sanghvi, product manager for “Feed”, appeared in a brand new blog (with only 7 posts to-date). It was too little too late. It would seem that Facebook neither did sufficient research to see how their users would react to the new features. Further, it seems obvious that Facebook did not attempt to contact all of their users – say, by email – and let them know the new features were coming up.

That new blog, by the way, has comments turned on now – but, they don’t appear in the blog. It seems they go to the author, alone. So, social networking and conversations are fine for the masses, but don’t bother us with them. Why am I reminded of Alfonso Bedoya and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. To paraphrase, “Comments and trackbacks? We don’t need no stinkin’ comments and trackbacks.”

Anyway, users began discovering the changes and a viral firestorm of ill-will began to spread. One such effort garnered “108,959 Total Signatures” to a petition entitled – “ Users Against the ‘News Feed’ and ‘Mini Feed'”. All totaled, estimates say 500,000 users sounded off in various groups, polls and posts about the ill-planned launch of the new features.

Mark Zuckerberg then reacted with a post (that some might call condescending) – “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.” The words “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” do not appear in that first post. It does, however, start to explain the reasons and rationale for the features. Further, Zuckerberg tells users that the features do not allow people to see information they couldn’t see before. Still, that’s too little too late. And, it seems, a bit misleading.

It gets better two days later – and worse, too. Zuckerberg comes back with an apology and revelations that privacy wasn’t as protected as he led readers to believe.

First, the apology:

We really messed this one up. When we launched News Feed and Mini-Feed we were trying to provide you with a stream of information about your social world. Instead, we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them. I’d like to try to correct those errors now.

Second, the revelation that work is being done to provide privacy protection:

…we missed this (privacy settings) point with News Feed and Mini-Feed and we didn’t build in the proper privacy controls right away. This was a big mistake on our part, and I’m sorry for it. But apologizing isn’t enough. I wanted to make sure we did something about it, and quickly. So we have been coding nonstop for two days to get you better privacy controls. This new privacy page will allow you to choose which types of stories go into your Mini-Feed and your friends’ News Feeds, and it also lists the type of actions Facebook will never let any other person know about. If you have more comments, please send them over.

A few thoughts about this bit of drama playing out in Facebook.

First, this whole debacle helps to confirm my long standing suspicions that Facebook does not give primary consideration to privacy and safety concerns of users. Just visit the Facebook safety page and you’ll see how thin and empty the effort has been. No depth in explaining the pitfalls that may befall someone being stalked. No references to how a Facebook profile left open to all could harm a student’s employment potential. If party photos and other undesirable representations of a student’s private life become known, a prospective employer may balk at the hire.

Is that kind of warning totally Facebook’s responsibility? No. Would it help to show that they recognize the pitfalls of the social network? Yes. And, it could go far in preventing unfortunate (and avoidable) experiences and stem dangers. To the point of protecting the company, it could also help prevent press stories that affect the value of a site. Just ask MySpace.

Second, Zuckerberg buried the lead in his second post – “This was a big mistake on our part, and I’m sorry for it. But apologizing isn’t enough.” Zuckerberg should have led with that apology (and done it two days earlier) and made it sound sincere. The “Calm down. Breathe.” comes off as someone chiding children for a temper-tantrum

What does all this teach us?

  1. Clearly, Zuckerberg was not in control of his company. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it. But, by his own blog posts, he did not know what was going on. The reasons why that happened should be explored and corrected for the future.
  2. Facebook had not effectively considered primary concerns of users and followed up to assure they were addressed prior to the launch.
  3. The two areas where most projects breakdown is in research and evaluation. Facebook failed in the research aspect at the beginning. They may benefit from the evaluation at the end – only if they learn by this and practice research (before) and evaluation (after) in all future feature launches.
  4. Facebook does not understand – completely – their audience. That is a powerfully painful learning experience. Will they correct their mistakes? We’ll see.
  5. I’m not holding my breath. So far, they don’t seem to be talking about security and safety. Bob Trahan skims it when discussing his new Friends Game, but it is truly a simple discussion of safety – and just for that little game.

One update of note:

Currently, when you login to Facebook, you are greeted by this announcement re: the privacy settings controversy.

Last week we asked you guys what privacy controls you thought were necessary for the upcoming expansion. We read all of your suggestions and we have built these controls:

  • Hide yourself from all people in a type of network (e.g. people only in a region, high schoolers) in searches.
  • Prevent people in those networks from messaging, poking and adding you as a friend.
  • Control whether your picture shows up in your search listing.

So, it appears they are now attempting to do some asking and listening – research and evaluation – of user preferences. That’s a bit of good news.

Another update: Yahoo! seeks Facebook in $1 billion buyout. (WSJ and Motley Fool – subscriptions required)

Thursday’s “Wall Street Journal had a front-page story on a quiet buyout battle brewing for the college-friendly social networking site Facebook.”