Facebook, the Phone Number Privacy Brouhaha and Birthday Wall Posts

Just as with the changing of the taps on Sam Adams seasonal flavors, every few months or so we can be guaranteed another “OMG, Facebook is invading my privacy because of [x].” This time around? The uproar is that the mobile app for Facebook conveniently grabs any phone number of your friends that they have made public and allows you to access it from within your phone. Of course, the ability to access this was blown grossly out of proportion: some people thought those numbers were completely published or saved by Facebook. They weren’t, but who doesn’t love a good cut-and-paste status message on what Facebook is doing to us?

(Let the record show that the m.facebook.com version has had this phone book option for as long as I can remember accessing it. In fact, I remember talking years ago that it was one of my favorite features of the mobile version of Facebook because the time I’m most likely to need and/or use the number that a friend made public on their profile is when I’m using a phone. Utility! I digress.)

Facebook responded with a status message response on Wednesday, and it was generally helpful to nerds like me who read Terms of Service (Termses of Service? Terms of Servii?). I don’t know if that generally explains it well enough. Basically, Facebook encourages you to add your phone number when syncing with one of the apps – and you have full rights to control who sees it based on your levels of privacy.

Talking about phone numbers is complicated, though. So I’m going to change course but write about something that works the exact same way from a privacy standpoint: your birthday. In fact, the settings are really similar (in terms of you limiting who can see it), it is completely required to register your account and actually is promoted even more publicly to your friends.

I don’t have the luxury of historic screen shots, but I hope my memory doesn’t fail me too well.

In 2004 at launch, just like any registration online, Facebook requested the birthday of its users to validate age. This was the profile-only era of Facebook, no walls and certainly no news feed. Birthdays were listed on the page and could be removed from the public eye by the viewer. In 2005, when the pages were first update to include the walls, birthday was still present, but without the news feed, there was no other landing page to gather birthday information (although somewhere in the back pages, you could find a list by day of your friends birthdays – not at all unlike the list of contacts that you can find related to phone number).

The biggest change was when birthday information went from being on the profile page to the landing page – thanks to the late 2006 introduction of the News Feed. Sure, the information was “below the fold” of the screen, but it was public enough that people started more regularly using the occasion to post on friends’ walls. Of course, by the next year, those wall postings too started making the news feed and thus was the birth of the Facebook Birthday phenom. Now? The information on your contacts’ birthdays is in one of the most prominent places on the home page, and it’s probably the way most of your contacts interact with you. (David Plotz’s hysterical “My Fake Facebook Birthdays” is a delightful overview of the banality of these types of posts, but that’s just a worthy tangent).

Do you remember any sort of uprising when Facebook moved the information about your birthday to this public of a place? Probably not. You were bombarded with greetings from friends and contacts. It was enjoyable – and there was a pretty good user reason why Facebook made the change to coincide with existing habits of its members. Now think of phone numbers of your friends and contacts: it is just as easy to hide your birthday from different friends as it your phone number.

My Google Plus List of Grievances

Below are all pulled from an IM conversation yesterday, generally unedited.

  • I’m generally underimpressed and think it is much more like Tumblr or Twitter than Facebook.  I don’t exactly use Facebook for conversations. And I very much dislike the privacy things.
    • I don’t like that Google adds people to my GChat list if we both add each other to circles.
    • I don’t like that I can’t whitelist people allowing them to add me to circles.
  • It’s a pain in the ass to share to it. Seems like extra steps to share with ultimately the same people I have in other places. Now, would this change with certain tools (like, what Buzz used to do with auto sharing Reader shares)? Likely.
  • The Circling process is backwards. You being in “my circle” is for me to share with you. If you aren’t following me, that’s a useless relationship. I don’t get how this could be sustainable. People aren’t adding me because of what I’m saying (which is nothing). They are adding me because they want me to add them back so they can spew off their ****.
  • I see two really important things:
    • The user stats are misleading. I think Google is counting anyone who is added to a circle – not actively logging in or even signing up – as a user.
    • Google’s biggest problem with FB is the sheer number of people with Yahoo and Hotmail addresses that registered. Hence the requiring a GMail address. This is conversion.
Some days, you just have to rant.

Pharma Caught in Facebook’s Interaction Evolution

I’ve been searching for the source on a post from early 2009 when the great brand page revolution began on Facebook. I want to say it was Robert Scoble, but don’t hold me to the source if I’m wrong because I agree regardless who said it, who pointed out that with the right eye, you can see a really clear path of Facebook’s progression and evolution. Not to belabor the point, but consider the history of the wall, status updates and the news feed.

When the Wall was first introduced (fall of 2005), users had only just received the ability to become friends with people outside their network. The Wall started as a way of leaving notes for your friends on their profile page. Two things happened in the 2007 that led us to where we are today. The first involved the Wall – instead of being something that lived on your profile, interactions moved to a new Facebook home page that featured not just your profile and what your friends wrote, but a public display of the News Feed and the interactions that happened throughout your network. The second involved who was on Facebook, because it was right around the same time that anyone with an e-mail address could enter the garden previously reserved just for students. Over the years since, the News Feed went from a perceived invasion of privacy (spoiler alert: it’s not) to a key method of interacting with the growing universe of Facebook users.

Just as it did a few autumns back, Facebook slowly made changes to allow companies and brands to enter the garden – in almost the exact same path as users. Stick with me, and you’ll see the inevitable result of brand integration into how users engage in Facebook. There’s a clear cause-effect for the pharmaceutical industry to note.

The profile option known as “pages” popped up in the beginning of 2009, and the crude beginning offered a few things that early Facebook members will remember: minimal options and the requirement of “destination” interactions. That is to say: you had to go to the profile to see the content. In the years since, things have slowly changed to integrate those actions more into the way we use Facebook users. First, it was a change in the layout, to match the profile page and the creation of a wall. Then, updates slowly worked their way into the news feed, followed by the ability of pages to start acting like users – posting and responding on other pages. The most recent? Now you can tag a brand page in one of your photos – just like it’s one of your friends.*

Sorry for the long history, but it really does matter in terms of the current discussion around Pharma and the reports that Facebook will now prevent pharmaceutical company from blocking interaction features like “commenting.” You may have seen one or more stories on this in recent time (Andrew Spong has been gathering all of them), and it is absolutely important to note. There was a specific reason that companies would want this ability: it allows them a seat in the Facebook agora in a controlled way that would help keep away from critical posts or open comment fields in which a patient could express an adverse event.

This change makes that a lot harder for those who wanted a way that best managed the risks of Facebook. Now, with this news about the changing protocol, some are concerned that Facebook is preventing healthcare and its regulations to play with the global online network. Interestingly, just as many are surprised that such an exception even existed in the first place. This wasn’t a standard setting. In order to get the commenting feature turned off, it required the assistance of Facebook’s technical staff.

Reports, which are quite likely true, indicate that the loophole is going away. Don’t freak out. This is just about timing and evolution, and it has little to do with Facebook wanting to stick it to the heavily regulated health industry. Think back to the history of Facebook and how the community is built around conversation. Facebook interaction is what drives the engagement. Actually, as we the users engage more within the News Feed, there is a pretty sharp decline on the practice of actually visiting brand pages. This change is trying to create conformity among all the different types of pages so that users have a normalized experience.

Pharma just got caught in the middle of the trajectory of Facebook and brand engagement. The hardest thing to do – especially since there are still no clear guidelines for health communication in social media – is to determine what actions are safe to be discussed with involvement from an organization in this regulated industry. There are still very many ways for the industry to put a toe in the Facebook water without jumping in the deep end, it just takes a level-headed approach that works within Facebook’s terms.

*N.b., this last feature is not turned on for every type of Facebook page (just those listed as “brands and products” or “people” , but just like with this other conversation, it’s more likely to happen than not to all pages.

Breathe Deep: Crowd Wisdom and YouTube

Some truth on YouTube comments from Timothy Burke:

I’m a little uncomfortable…maybe because he’s pretty right.

Lifetime Shorty Award for Conan? Really?

Look, I’m a big supporter and fan of Conan. And I like Twitter and many of the people who earned Shorty Awards last night. I even thought the acceptance speech joke with Power Broker was pretty funny (see above).

…but giving Conan O’Brien a lifetime achievement award in the “Oscars of Twitter?” The guy has been really entertaining on Twitter, with his really well-written -by-him-and-his-staff comments that are published (scheduled) daily. The ability for him to write things that get retweeted are absolutely neat-o in this Twitterverse. That’s a lifetime achievement?

Please tell me there is a joke I’m missing somewhere.

Cassingles, Mix Tapes and Fast Content

My leisure reading recently has taken me in a direction pretty far away from the normal tech, sociology or media books I usually bookworm through. While the current “to read” list has some of those in it, I used a book completely unrelated to that field to help get me through some recent long-distance travel. The book I picked up is a little bit of pop music porn, the brilliantly written memoir by Rob Sheffield on growing up with 80s radio hits, Talking to Girls about Duran Duran.

I had no expectation that this fun read would have any direct relevance to my day job or normal communication activities. I was wrong, because in reading his mix tape of a story, I recognized that there may be more of a direct connection between Tone Loc and Twitter than I could ever even wildly fantasize about. Stay with me, if you can.

One of the more memorable chapters, for me, is Sheffield’s 14-page prayer at the altar of 80s pop cassingles. As Sheffield writes (page 212, for you citation folks):

“The Cassingle was the pop format of the gods. They were ninety-nine cents, the same price as a seven-inch single in the 1970s or an iTunes download in the 2000s, the price that somehow people decided was the maximum they would pay for a hit song without feeling clipped…little loved, not built to last, encased in flimsly little folded-cardboard cases, cassingles were the humble servants of the pop moment, but they were capable of grandeur.”

Maybe you see where I’m beginning to go with this, and it isn’t into a list of the cassingles that are somewhere stored in a box in my parents’ house never to be seen again. Sheffield continued with the point that really nailed it for me:

“Like any pop format worth its salt, then or now, it was designed for kids on the go, an impulse purchase to be spun a few times on a banged-up Walkman, then thrown away and ash-canned forever.”

Through both internal conversations with colleagues and my own perception, I think it’s beginning to become clear that trying to keep up with the river of news is impossible. It moves too quickly, and the biggest mistake of online content may be trying to keep up with it.

The thing that Mr. Sheffield reminded me of is that content that is meant not to last isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has a complete use, and in some instances, can become a culture in and of itself. Look at Tumblr, look at Twitter or the Facebook news feed: no one drinks from the firehose (unless you are Joel Miller). Anyone who says they consume it all is lying. Like the pop music cassingle, a bit of this “fast content” is designed to be devoured by those who catch it, but completely ok to be missed if it hits the trash can before noticed.

The logic on this: if any of this content was built for something more, it’d be on a full album or on someone’s mix tape. As Sheffield also commented, no one got into the music business for a cassingle career. Getting content beyond the speeding river requires that same attitude.

Image cc Flickr user lizstless

Quote of the Day: “Social” Media

“I think socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.”

~Aaron Sorkin, author of The Social Network screenplay during an interview on The View

Yes, that is correct. It’s a network, not social. In fact, social media is a medium, not about interaction.


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