Matthew Helfgott, a 20-year-old college student from Long Island, knows what his girlfriend is getting him for Hanukkah. Her purchase of a pair of men's gloves popped up on her Facebook page, via the social-networking giant's controversial new advertising feature.
The Beacon advertising feature displays a feed of items bought on Facebook partner sites. Whenever a Facebook users buys a product, signs up for a service, or adds an item to a wishlist on a participating site, Facebook displays a "story" about the action on the user's profile and in his or her newsfeed, another controversial Facebook feature that displays photos, posts, and other bits of information on friends' profiles.
When performing a Beacon action, users get a message allowing them to opt out of each story but not the service as a whole. Retailers can participate in the program simply by posting a few lines of code on a site.
MoveOn Balks at Beacon
The viral marketing scheme has upset enough users that the liberal advocacy group MoveOn has launched a campaign for changes in the program. And naturally it's using the power of Facebook to get the word out.
MoveOn has started a Facebook group for its petition to make Beacon into an opt-in system instead of an opt-out feature. "Facebook must respect my privacy. They should not tell my friends what I buy on other sites -- or let companies use my name to endorse their products -- without my explicit permission," the petition states.
MoveOn says the current opt-out feature is "easily missed," and that "even if you do opt out for purchases on one site, it doesn't apply to purchases on another site -- you have to keep opting out over and over again."
The solution, the group says, is simple. Beacon, like most other Facebook applications, should be something users choose to participate in, not something they have to -- and is difficult to -- opt out of.
Like It or Leave It?
Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly said that MoveOn is misrepresenting the scope of Beacon because it doesn't display purchases to "the world," just on the purchaser's profile and those of friends who subscribe to that person's news feed.
Some users think MoveOn should butt out. "They made the site, they make the rules. If you don't like it, leave. It's how they make $ and what drives innovation," wrote Jeremy Taylor, a student at the University of California at Davis, on the petition group's "wall."
Others are saying that leaving Facebook is an excellent idea. "This new functionality really is an embarrassment and, yes, I will cancel my account very soon if it doesn't change," wrote Hoai Nguyen of Montreal.
Adam Green, a MoveOn spokesperson, said the group wants to stop the overcommercialization of social networks. "Facebook and similar sites have the potential to really revolutionize how we speak to each other in our society," he told the New York Times. "When people see their privacy violated, it sullies the entire thing."
Crossing a Line
Greg Sterling, principal analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence, said Facebook has crossed a line. "Facebook is using its community for the benefit of its advertisers. They're saying to users, 'We're going to use you to promote other people to advertisers. And the burden is on you to say no to that,'" he said in a telephone interview.
For now, Sterling predicted, Facebook will take a wait-and-see attitude to see how loud the outcry is. "If the stories go away in a few days, they won't do anything. If it rises to the level of critical mass, they'll tweak it." But, he added, Facebook will be reluctant to meet MoveOn's request for a pure opt-in system. "Opt-in just doesn't product the numbers that opt-out does."
The promise of Facebook ads is that they are more relevant because of the connections between users, Tim Bajarin, principal analyst for Creative Strategies, said in an e-mail. "I am an avid scuba diver and I buy scuba magazines or go to scuba Web sites often not for their content," he said. "I know the ads there will perhaps be of interest to me as well."
If ads continue to be more relevant to the Facebook faithful, Bajarin said, it could push the Facebook users to side more with Facebook than with MoveOn.
Posted: 2010-05-15 @ 1:50pm PT
I don't want my purchases on my profile, they are nobody's business but MINE. Facebook needs to butt out of my business!