Facebook's Beacon

Facebook is still the site everyone loves to talk about. According to Techcrunch, themselves quoting Comscore, Facebook received 32 million unique views against 71 million for MySpace. So while Facebook has not caught up, it is still catching up, growing 118% in the past year, the result being Facebook continues to attract the most commentary. Facebook hit a wave of negative publicity when they were accused of ruining Christmas. In short their new Beacon ad system incorporates certain purchases into the newsfeed: if you mention to me that you'd like, say, a new Aston Martin for Christmas, and then on your newsfeed appeared "Michael has bought a new Aston Martin", some of the surprise, the glee, might be taken out of the (large) equation.Many saw it as an intrusion too far, an entangling of business interest and personal financial transaction in a sphere supposedly dedicated to social interaction. However fighting the hysteria was read/write web who argued that no one really cares, at least compared to the way people cared when the newsfeed was first released. Even they thought that without a clear opt out Beacon could seriously missfire. In the end Facebook has baulked at a blanket publishing of user activity on third party sites and has incorporated an opt in function, the catch being that you will keep being pestered by Facebook until you have actively logged in or out of Beacon postings.

The whole issue is caught up with the wider debate about Facebook privacy. Accusations that Facebook are doctoring search to suit their own nefarious ends have also hit the networking site. People are increasingly worried that Facebook has amassed a dangerously detailed and complete data reservoir to the extent that the Information Commissioner will step in to provide guidelines for young people. There has been a backlash against the ad program from not only users but also advertisers who argue that paid for ads simply do not garner enough interest (a pathetic click through rate of 0.04%)- unlike on Google people are not looking (in the main) for anything specific on Facebook other than to generally follow what their friends are up to, say hi etc. Newly released corporate pages, part of the recent overhaul in their ad program, have not gone down well either, and even Penguin, who have created one, admit that there are some issues with the whole concept of Facebook and corporate identity. It appears then that Facebook is increasingly imbricated with third parties, mostly unknown to casual users, who can then use the site in both obvious and ever more subtle ways, a shift that has lead Bokardo to call the design "Brilliant but Evil" and demand an opt in for any corporate programs or knowledge sharing. For example you can now get involved with SpriteSips, as in the soft drink, which offers a host of content and activities from videos to music and "mobile refreshment". For a while Facebook has been talked up as a business network, largely over the heads of its core (or original) users who just carried on posting drunken pictures, stupid comments and pointless messages. Now the boundaries between the social content and the box ads has broken down, a breakdown that was inevitable at some level once the site was opened to developers.

Earlier this year, in a controversial and highly publicised paper by Danah Boyd, Facebook and MySpace were depicted in class terms- baldly speaking Facebook is middle class, in conception, design and userbase, a fact unsurprising given that it all began in the Ivy League. Far from dampening the hype that led to Microsoft paying $240m for a relatively small stake in the company this probably only exacerbated it as the research confirmed that Facebook's ever expanding demographic is a marketer's dream. If Facebook is the site everyone loves to talk about it is also the site everyone also loves to hate. A nexus of Google style approachability and high powered, half obscured corporate deals involving the privacy of millions has lead to Facebook being an easy target for abuse, as well as the latest promised land of web marketing. Of course Facebook's ubiquitousness means it will inevitably get savaged just for being everywhere. It is the mainstream and as such will attract attention from the margins. The same element that so appeals to companies- the wide group of users from affluent teenagers to cash rich time poor young professionals and the clean set up to suit them all- is the element that detractors so love to hate.

Publishing 2.0 argues that Beacon is likely to fail because Facebook does not have a monopoly on social networking. While acknowledging that the barriers to changing a social networking site are extremely high the fact that they are not absolute means that people will change. Shifting such a distributed yet embedded network is in itself so hard as to effectively institute a monopoly. Yes, there are other sites out there. But how are you going to convince even a third of your network to move unless they really want to? If people are sufficiently exercised by Facebook then maybe, just maybe, you could replicate the set up, with the kind of perfect organisation that never seems to happen. However I think they are not.

Attacks on Facebook are pretty pointless. Leaving aside the more general issues and focusing on those of privacy and corporate penetration of the network booktwo has recently argued that "it's people not marketers who are commodifying their spaces. People prefer to feed on this stuff than build their own [spaces]. A colossal failure of imagination is occuring, but its in our heads, not in that of some ingenious, impersonal, infernal marketeer". I think this is right- up to a point. Living in London one is under almost perpetual surveillance, being watched by more security cameras than any where else on earth. Shops and banks track credit card spending. The Congestion Charge and Oyster track movements. Notionally GCHQ can monitor your phone calls and emails. Privacy is rare. Equally London is a rampantly commercialised space, ad hoardings screaming from every wall. Very little comes for free and when it does there is usually an agenda, in which the user is fully complicit, behind the non-monetary transaction. This is what we have come to accept, have grown up with. What I am suggesting is that the issues of privacy and the tie in to commerce that has excited this latest round of condemnation are ultimately irrelevant to the mass of Facebook users: for many of them this is just the default state of things. Booktwo is correct, in that people seem quite happy to adorn their sites with any amount of corporate, largely trashy, paraphernalia. However this is really no different from walking down a street wearing a Nike top and drinking Coke. In both you are exist in a conversant relationship with a brand- you gain at some level, and in turn serve to market that brand through your day to day interactions with it. The failure of imagination didn't start with Facebook; it has just migrated onto it. One argument against Facebook is that it contains masses of useless information. Aside from the question of whether people want useless information, and I would suggest that they do, alot, Facebook actually contains a mass of useful information, and more importantly a useful communications network that allows people a one-to-many asynchronous communication with a dispersed group of friends, acquaintances etc, the result being an enormously practical reification of what previously existed as loosely lived experience. Because Facebook has this utility value people are likely to accept a degree of advertising or partnership, if it continues to have that utility, the value of which lies in the number of people you can usefully communicate with, a value only likely to rise as the user base grows. People invested in the web care about it and the almost limitless possibility it represents. For most users of Facebook though it is just another resource, another plaything, another aspect of life to be blinged out.

Against this whole train of thought is the idea that there are people, often like myself amongst the first wave of Facebook adoptees, who resent that the purely social aspect of the site has been diminished. This keys in with the a whole attitude of resenting (and critiquing) the business networking aspect of Facebook that has become increasingly apparent, an argument that would ring fence Facebook for "life" and sites like LinkedIn for work. Its an attitude that I have much sympathy for. The Facebook as a platform application boom largely passed me by as I reserved my page for purely social concerns, using it more as place to store photographs and keep up with old friends. This kind of attitude seems increasingly rare as the average profile page is filled with more and more apps, many of them fun, some of them probably commercial at some level- just as the social spaces of our lives, from cafes to bars, even libraries, have become more commercialised, dominated by both highly visible and more obscure conglomerates, so are the newer social spaces of the internet. Connecting the two is a casual attitude from the user, who is as likely to drink branded vodka from a high profile night life chain as add a playful soft drinks cartoon on their social networking space. Companies, lives and brands exist in a co-extensive space both epitomised by, but also symptomatic of, the Facebook Beacon initiative.

One way of looking at this is to contrast it through Google and the Google founders. Both Facebook and Google are, unsurprisingly, aggressively pursuing policies to ensure maximum ad revenue from their sites in the ever expanding online ad space. However Google subsumes ads to itself- they run through its searches and remain in its agreed design and font parameters. This austere and functional advertising seems to cohere with both the high minded, academic credentials of Larry and Sergey while also fitting into with the hardcore business mindset of Eric Schmidt. Mark Zuckerberg, lampooned here as "the Zuckster", is the archetypal Gen Yer, at ease with, even a product of, technology and the highly mediated, commercialised environments of modernity. Ok so he did go to Harvard, and Facebook's whole model requires a totally different conception of advertising anyway, but there is a clear generational gap between the two, a gap that can be seen manifesting itself in the approach to ads. Google and privacy is a topic that can be saved for another time.

So, eventually, we get, inevitably, to publishing. The collapse of reading amongst youth demographics, as highlighted in the recent report To Read or Not to Read, is often blamed on the concurrent rise of new media entertainment. This line of syllogistic thinking roughly runs: people are reading less, they are spending more and more time on social networking sites, therefore social networking sites are killing reading. Perhaps this is partially true. Whatever the truth of why people, and as the report indicates its not just teenagers who read less than ever, aren't reading books it seems that without getting involved in social networking sites publishers will miss out on a new way of engaging readers There are I think a number of important parameters inherent in the platform that allows companies to successfully enter Facebook and not alienate users or become a casual irrelevance like the current ads. Firstly Facebook is still largely democratic in that I am not coerced to add any applications other than those needed for establishing a profile- no one is therefore being forced to corporatise their site anymore than seeing the bar ads at the screen edges. Now that Beacon has also been democratised and chastened to some extent then Facebook is an advertising space largely as much as one wants it to be. This means that a firm has to do something that people actually, really, genuinely want if they are to get things to work. On the one hand we get a profusion of largely crap company stuff- you might also get some cool things as well. If a publisher creates a group that people want to join then everyone wins. Secondly unless a brand has enough cache for people to get involved then its hardly worth using that brand. From a publisher perspective this pretty much translates as- talk about your writers, not yourself. Company involvement with Facebook need not be a negative thing from a user perspective.

In short then Facebook may work as an advertising platform, against the protestations of privacy activists, users annoyed at the intrusion of their social space, web idealists who see the internet as a possible space to transcend the relentless commodification of everything simply because its ad model is an extension of what already exists. Facebook's ad program breaks more ground in terms of the way companies are thinking about advertising, changing them beyond even Microsoft's parodic video of a advertiser/consumer relationship, than in terms of how people experience their world. In that sense we already live in Beacon.