Monday, November 08, 2010

Facebook's new trick: it turns friends into direct marketers

What really appeals to me about social media is that it lets people make direct, genuine connections with each other. I'm really taken with the fact that status messages let us pick up a sort of ambient status of our friends, colleagues, and associates. It's good to know what others are thinking, feeling, and concerned about. It's also good to hear their arguments. That's especially important during big events such as election campaigns. For instance, when I watch candidates debating, I now tune into my Twitter stream to see how people on the right and left interpret and react to statements. The reactions of people I know seem more important to me than the scripted reactions of the talking heads that are employed by news organizations. And seeing their points of view helps me to think twice about political statements rather than simply accepting them. It deepens my understanding of the national conversation and helps me to think in terms of compromises, not lines in the sand. That's good for democracy, I think.

And that's a good reason for not unfriending people whose political beliefs you disagree with, by my lights. You get out of a partisan echo chamber and begin to understand how people across the political spectrum might interpret the same statement in different ways, associating it with other statements. Let's not call it the wisdom of crowds; let's call it diversifying the viewpoints to which you listen. It doesn't mean you agree with them, but it means you understand them.

So I'll read the status messages of people across the political spectrum. On Twitter, which I love, that's the only way to share this information. On Facebook, about which I have more mixed feelings, people have other options: they can share stories, they can tag photos, they can comment on anything, and they can even post directly to your wall if they have a personal message for you that they also want to be public. It exemplifies the personal connection between people. Used well, it can deepen the personal understandings across people who hold different views.

But here's the thing about Facebook. Its primary goal is to extract marketing data from users so it can more effectively monetize them. Every Facebook interaction potentially adds to your further definition as a market segment.

What happens when you put these two together?

Alas, we found out this last electoral cycle. A few different Facebook applications rolled out that tried to marry personal connections with direct marketing. That is, they turned trusted friends into direct marketers. Here's one example from an LA Times blog:
The California Democratic Party unveiled a new tool in its kit of get-out-the-vote operations Monday: a first-of-its-kind Facebook application that sifts through a user’s friends list, matches it with the friends’ party registrations and voting histories and pops out a list people who vote Democratic but don’t regularly vote.

It then encourages users to tell their non-voting friends to cast a ballot Nov. 2.

Without a trace of irony, the story explains that "the development of the Facebook app was made possible because of funding from Chris Kelly, Facebook’s former chief privacy officer, who lost this year’s Democratic primary for state attorney general" (my emphasis). A Democratic spokesman adds, "In the same way that we target voters with direct mail, this is part of the same strategy for us" (my emphasis).

That's not the only Facebook app to do this job. rolled out its Commit to Vote app, which goes through your friends list and posts a reminder to vote to your friends' wall. Yes, all your friends. Yes, this means that a form of communication that used to indicate a personal connection - posting to someone's wall - becomes the equivalent of direct mail. Worse, if the person using the Commit to Vote app shares many friends with you, your stream is suddenly full of identical direct mail pieces: the message posted to your wall and the messages posted to 33 of your friends' walls. Conservative WSJ blogger James Taranto ridicules this approach (last item): "Wow, so that's the Democrats' secret weapon. ... Facebook spam..." Yes: with Facebook, anyone can now be a direct marketer. Anyone can set up the equivalent of a robocall - for as long as they have Facebook friends, anyway.

I personally don't care who came up with the idea, on whichever part of the political spectrum. It's a very troubling turn for social media because it takes the two contradictory sides - the social features that enable deeper and more expansive personal connections, and the trove of marketing data that enable marketing connections - and fuses them together in exactly the wrong way. In 1999, the Cluetrain Manifesto urged us to understand markets as conversations. In 2010, conversations have become marketing.

I want the conversation, not the marketing. And that means that if some individual wanted to post to my wall and have an actual conversation, I would be fine with it. But unfortunately they can't. Because of the Commit to Vote app, I have restricted access to my wall, and I don't see lifting those restrictions anytime soon.

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