Monday, January 07, 2013

Facebook's Free Lunch

"It's free and always will be."

This is the first greeting you'll encounter if you establish a Facebook account. Since the social networking service tracks everything, I wonder if there's a statistic indicating how many of the billion users actually believe this claim.

Sure, you may never have to crack open your wallet to open an account or to creep around gawking at strangers' holiday pix, but it's amusing how many users cry foul each time Facebook creatively tries to monetize itself.

Although Facebook appears to be a lovely community service of smiling happy faces, that's only a clever disguise. It's really a business (who knew?) and businesses need to make money, else their owners (shareholders, in this case) grow restless and sell their portion, driving down the value of the business as a consequence.

Facebook's latest attempt to monetize some of its services came when its wholly owned photosharing site, Instagram announced a new intellectual property policy that could give it the right to sell users' photographs without notification or compensation to the user. Although the company quickly backpedaled after a public outcry, I was surprised (or sadly, perhaps not) by the sheer volume of users who ostensibly seemed to think that their highly filtered photos would be coveted down on Madison Avenue. I mean does any average user really think that the Sutro'd photo of their drunken visage snapped at some all-inclusive in Aruba is going to make it into the next glossy Sandals brochure?

What part of "world wide web" is being misunderstood?

I came very late to the Facebook party and I'm still undecided as to whether there's a net benefit for me, or not and I've never fooled myself into thinking that anything I post is "private", either. Regardless of how many screens, filters, and barriers I may place in front of my data, I'm keenly aware that someone somewhere can likely view photos that were intended for family consumption only. There has to be a few thousand techies with "all access passes", right? As tired as the cliché is, "govern yourself accordingly."

Fast and loose access to your private online information gets simpler too the older the data becomes.  When one of the first social networks, Friendster collapsed, holders of defunct accounts were shocked to discover years later that their dormant profile data had been sold. Surreptitious indeed, but like gym memberships there's little that can be done about it once a company changes hands. Memory Lane,, Myspace? I'm sure their day is coming.

In the meantime, Facebook will continue to walk the tightrope between making money for its owners and respecting the privacy of its users as neither of these parties can exist without the other.