Category Archives: Facebook

The “Like” button dissonance

facebook_like_buttonThe recent change of privacy controls on Facebook and the introduction of a global “Like” button are steering a lot of discussion all over the internet.  My friend Lokman has already left Facebook all together and keep hearing about “Leave Facebook Day” planned for May 21.

Many people, including those in major outlets are voicing their criticism of the erosion of privacy and introduction of the inverse Beakon.  For example, the Washington Post ran a number of articles on this subject and is reporting on a bill for privacy online being drafted following this outcry, ars technica writes about complains filed against Facebook at the FTC, Huffington Post posted some visualizations of how more and more of our information is exposed to more and more people on Facebook, and the Wired has recently posted a very opinionated piece from Ryan Singer criticizing Facebook’s behavior and calling for an alternative.  What I find amusing in this situation is that all these major outlets (and many others) have wholeheartedly adopted the universal “Like” feature and other Facebook gadgets.  When you come to read their articles, you are welcomed by familiar faces of your friends through some Facebook social feature.

To me it creates a dissonance.

I realize that in many cases these are journalists reporting on a piece of technology-related news and I realize that the opinions of the columnists belong to them and not necessarily to the news outlet. I also realize that the news outlets are involved in financial survival battle and using Facebook advertising and social platform may be an opportunity.  I even appreciate the fact these discussions are taking place and that the mainstream media, the blogosphere, and  even Facebook itself are hosting this debate.  Nevertheless, when I see that Ryan Singer’s super critical piece has two “Like” buttons and almost 3500 likes on Facebook, I understand why over at Facebook they feel so confident and comfortable messing with the privacy of their users.

And what do you think?

Paying to socialize?

Tech.blorge, one of the blogs on my RSS feeds, recently published an entry titled “Would you pay to use Facebook“.  They are echoing some of the ideas raised as a reaction to rumors that Facebook, which raised half a billion dollars less than two years ago, is running out of cash.  One of these ideas is subscription-based Facebook, meaning you will have to pay for accessing the website.

Right now this sounds more like a speculation, but it looks like the Russian social networking websites are actually experimenting with the subscription-based models.  I wrote in the past about the various ways Odnoklassniki.ru is monetizing on the social aspects of online social networks.  Recently, my father pointed out an item (RU) in the one of the Russian-language new websites, which states that Odnoklassniki is now requesting payment from new users asking to register.  According to this article, the registration now will cost between $1-2.  Those who choose not to pay will not be able to view other people’s profiles, contact other users, etc.  In other words the free registration is lacking any of the “social” elements, which is the main reason for people to join.

I looked a little bit around and there are more news items about that move in RuNet.  The official rationale stated by the Odnoklassniki management is that the paid registration is aimed at combatting spammers, who tend to open numerous accounts and use them for promotion of their products.  Some of the critics disagree (RU), suggesting this is just a way for Odnoklassniki to force the spammers to share their profits from the network.

In any case, it will be interesting to see whether or not the paid registration model will turn out to be sustainable.  Probably Facebook crew and others will be watching as they think about their next move. In the meantime, I do wonder if you would pay to socialize online?

Do social networks have a business model?

As the economic sky is getting covered with clouds of financial crisis and deepening recession, people start questioning the web 2.0 oriented business models, or more so the lack of thereof.

Recently I read about Mark Zuckerberg making statements suggesting that growth is the primary goal of Facebook at this point, and not revenue.  They do a pretty good job with the former (even though it is becoming harder), but at the end of the day it is the latter that matters.  Basically what he said in an interview to (German newspaper/site) NAZ.com is that Facebook has yet developed a business model, which is really mind boiling provided the amount of investments the receive.

In this light, I started thinking about the different approaches the US and the Russian social networking enterprises are taking.  And I wonder if at some point, Facebook and others will try to adopt some of the methods they Russian counterparts are using.  I think that Russian enterprises are not as “spoiled” in terms of investments and in terms of their investors’ patience.  Yet, there are social networking websites in Runet and they are rather blunt and creative in the way they are making money.  I have some degree of familiarity with two of them – Vkontakte.ru and Odnoklasniki.ru.

Vkontakte“, which is a blunt rip off Facebook, is rather mysterious.  It does not have any ads (but does have a lot of spam) and it is not clear at all how it is funded (to a degree that some conspiracy theories suggest that it is a government project aimed at spying on Russian citizens).  Yet, it seems to be the most popular social networking website in Russia these days.  Some suggest that it has cloned FB’s business model, but I could not see the exact parallel.  They do allow you to buy virtual gifts in Vkontakte, but I have not seen a single add.  The last fact actually attracted some English-speaking people who miss the old FB or cannot access it from work.

I find “Odnoklasniki” more interesting in the sense of monetizing on social sentiments of their users, even though it is not as popular as Vkontakte (and it probably appeals to a different demographic, but that is for another post).  To start with, they have a pretty horrible interface design.  FB (and as a derivation, Vkontakte) have done a significantly better job in making a useful and interesting website (or should I say “platform”?).  Odnoklasniki is very simple and not very intuitive, but apparently it works.  In addition to (supposedly contextualized) ads, Odnoklasniki is experimenting with making money off the very basic human needs that bring people to use their website in the first place.

For example, Odnoklasniki has a very different view of privacy and unlike FB, it always shows you who and when viewed your profile.  Yet, they understand that as much as we want to know who is looking at us, we don’t want others to know that we are looking at them.  So, if you would like to remain invisible as you visit other people’s profiles, they can offer you this service for just a little bit over US $4 a month.  Apparently it works!  You know that because even when an “invisible” user visits your profile, you still see that there was a visit, you just don’t know from whom.

Another example is the picture rating system they use on the website.  Odnoklasniki allows its users to rate other users’ pictures on a 1-5 scale.  This is of course another socially sensitive issue.  On the one hand, you would probably like to complement people you like by giving them the highest rating possible.  On the other hand, it is a social networking website, so it has a little bit of a beauty contest component to it.  In other words, you want your pictures to have high ratings, as this probably signifies popularity.

Odnoklasniki are using (or shall i say exploiting) both sentiments.  On the one hand, for a little bit over US $4 a month, you can get an ability to give out a 5+ mark to other people’s pictures (5+ vs. 5 is like A+ vs. A).  On the other hand, you can insure one picture at a time in your collection from getting low ratings.  When you apply this service, the system will automatically add 1 point to any rating below 5.  Surprisingly, this service is free, but it is “sponsored” by an insurance agency, which proudly advertises itself when you are trying to insure your pictures and I assume once you apply this insurance.

These are just a couple of examples and some of the serveices are rather new.  I don’t know how viable the business model of Odnoklasniki is, but I do find it fascinating that they are trying to monetize on the social aspects of these networks, which is why people people are using these domains in the first place.  What do you think?  Can/should FB think about other aspects of the platform they’ve developed?  Should they view it not just as an advertising platform?  Can/should they try making money out of it?

MLM on Facebook

Recently, I saw a number of my Facebook contacts (actually quite a large number, something like 18) becoming “friends” with Alberto Floro Da Silva.  This triggered me to share this story and a few thoughts on our online habits.

A while ago I got a Facebook friend request from someone named Alberto Floro Da Silva.  Although I think my Facebook profile is not the most restricted in terms of privacy, I do not usually add total stranger to my friends list.  In most cases I have met most of my contacts or have mutual acquaintances who think we should maintain a linkage.  I would almost never add a complete stranger to my list.

Alberto and I had indeed a number of people as mutual Facebook friends.  However the age difference between him and those acquaintances was quite significant and I could not identify a clear pattern of relationship (geographical, event, etc.).  So, I emailed Alberto asking whether or not we actually know each other and got a reply from his saying that no, but he usually adds all the friends of his friends and would appreciate a link to me as well. For a few moments, I was puzzled, and then decided to accept Alberto’s request.  My decision was based on some observations I had about various patterns of using platforms such as Facebook among people of different ages and different cultural backgrounds.  “What can be wrong,” I thought to myself, “that’s the way he is using Facebook and there will be no harm or cost in adding him.”

Apparently I was wrong.

A few days after adding Alberto, I got the following message from Alberto:

DIMA EPSTEIN, it could please analyze this presentation of technology for http://alfloro.ffivision.com environment . it informs its research please. grateful alberto – Brazil

When you follow the link it shows you a short video about global warming and a call to join a business that “will change your life and help fighting the global warming” (more or less in these words).  No additional information is available on the website, only a form to join.  To me it looked fishy.  I emailed Alberto asking for explanations, but never heard back.  A few days later, I removed him from my friends list.

Now, after seeing over a dozen of my friends befriending Alberto I went on and researched a little bit more about the mysterious link.  Apparently, this is a company in Florida that distributes some sort of engine performance enhancing add-on, which uses multi-level marketing (MLM) as its marketing vehicle.  I didn’t spend too much time on the investigation, but the brief one I did, draws a picture of a pretty sketchy enterprise.  Most of the search results for FFI (the commonly known name for the company) bring up web pages of distributors such as that of Alberto.  Interestingly enough, the only link to the full name of the company on the first page of Google results is a sponsored linked to some kid of MLM clearing house.

If you search for the full name (“Fuel Freedom International”), there is a rather badly written Wikipedia article about it with sort of an editorial war going on between people who are pushing the product and everybody else.  There is of course the company’s website, which has more marketing texts, but little substance.  And if you really have time, there are dozens of online debates (such as this one and this one) and YouTube videos, debating whether or not this is scam.

The more I looked into it, the more fascinated I was by the phenomenon of how multi-level marketing is (ab)using the online tools.  I could, in fact, write an entire post looking into the debates about the authenticity of this product (from my short review, I remain skeptical about it), but I would to limit myself to an observation of to how Alberto is exploiting our reputation and our “befriending” habits to promote his business, whether it is legitimate or not, on networking sites (yes, he has profiles in more than one).

FacebookMy lesson from this story is that even though I treat Facebook more as a self-updating address book, I should be more careful with how I use it.  In the short period of time Alberto was my Facebook “friend” this fact might have encourage other people on my list to befriend him.  But not only that, having my name on his “friends list” probably gave more credibility to his message (i.e. product and marketing strategy he is using) in the eyes of people who trust me (just as having people I know on his list, gave him more credibility in my eyes).

This later point is what I think we, online users, should be really thoughtful about – having a publicly observable link to a person, shares some of our credibility with him/her.  Bringing our offline perceptions and habbits to the online environment, we tend to trust people referred by people we know.  However, the weight of relationship or the referral in online environment appears to be significantly less than that in the offline life.  The combination of the weight we give to referral whether it is online or offline, and the lightness with which we provide those referrals online (voluntarily or not), create quite a dangerous exposure that can, in fact, cost someone money, or other resources.  I find it really interesting, and I am sure, somebody out there is already studying it :)

To wrap it up, please be thoughtful when you befriend people online and if you had asimilar story, please share it in the comments.

Limited “neweness” or lack of tact?

Thanks to Veronica, who mentioned this to me, i read the following debate (HE) about whether or not it would be appropriate to announce a funeral via FaceBook(FB). The primary argument is around whether or not it is tasteless or not to invite people to a funeral using “events” on FB. On its face it is a ridiculous question and my guts reaction was “hell no!”. But as it also go me thinking…

When somebody dies in Israel, the closest relatives and friends are usually receive a phone call, and more distant acquaintances and colleagues are getting the message through the grapevine or through institutional channels such as an organizational memo. Recently, i hear more people using SMS to announce the tragedy to wider publics. To a great extent, these practices are dictated by the Jewish tradition, which requires the body to be buried as soon as possible. In many cases this means that the funeral is taking place on the same day of the death or the following one, but rarely later than that.

One particularly interesting practice of announcing a funeral is using the media. Frequently people would publish an announcement in a newspaper about a death of a person, the time of the funeral, and the location of shiva. Another common practice is to place notification with the same information in public places, particularly in the area where the person lived.

These latter practices prompted me thinking about the FB case from a different angle. What is the principle difference between placing an ad in a newspaper and placing an announcement on FB? The popular claim is that alternative media and social networking platforms replace mainstream media outlets, particularly for the younger generation. If people consume political, economic, cultural, and other news through personalized feeds, why would it be wrong to announce a personal tragedy using the same medium? If we are to talk about the “new” media, why (or where) is this newness limited to the not serious stuff only? In a way, this may be even more humane compared to a newspaper ad, because you know that the message goes only to the people who cared to one degree or another about the passed away person.

What do you think?

Facebook numbers drop?

Recently there is a buzz in the blogosphere about the drop in FB numbers. It looks like people got tired of constant stalking of their own friends or just moved on to other platforms. It may be just a seasonal fluctuation, but it also may be that the growing number of social networks websites crossed a point where people are not coping with managing so many instances of their social connections and are backing off. If that is the case, it looks like the next big service will be a system that will allow a single control panel for all the major social networking website. For example Eszter just blogged about FriendFeed which seems like a move in this direction. What do you think?

Correcting the mistakes of Beacon

It looks like Facebook (FB) is looking for ways of resolving the Beacon issue and this time they decided to use their users. Recently a call for participation in the survey appeared under a nice title “What do you think”?

FB survey

In fact FB doesn’t really care what you think, but it is interested in knowing more about your online shopping behavior. Here is what they got there:

  1. Have you bought anything online in the past three months?
  2. In total, how much have you spent online in the last three months?
  3. In total, how much do you intend to spend online in the next three months?
  4. Thinking about retailers you are loyal to, how important are each of the following in making you a loyal shopper to those retailers? (followed by 14 items that you can rate on a 5 point scale).
  5. Have you done any of these activities while shopping at an ONLINE store in the past three months? (that’s and interesting one, because i think it is clearly aimed at looking for ways of utilizing social network website for advertising). Here are the categories for answer:
    • Sat at the computer with friend(s)
    • Talked to a friend via cell phone
    • Sent a text message to a friend via cell phone/device
    • Received a text message via cell phone/device
    • IMed a friend
    • Emailed a message to a friend
    • Emailed a link to the store to a friend
    • Took a photo and emailed it to a friend
    • Emailed a product photo to a friend
    • Emailed a cool/funny app to a friend
    • Used a general search engine
    • Shared a link with a friend on Facebook
    • None of these
    • I did not shop in an online store in the past three months
  6. In the past three months, approximately how many of your purchases for each type of product were made ONLINE? (followed by 18 items that you can rate on a 5 point scale).
  7. In the NEXT three months, approximately how much money will you spend on each of the following types of products? (followed by 18 items + an open field; for each one you can choose a range of sums you are willing to spend).

Now, it is pretty clear that they are trying to think about new ways of implementing and marketing Beacon. I find it actually a clever and innovative way to start thinking about online marketing (not the use of survey, but the ideas behind this specific one). But there is still somewhat weird about it, especially if you take into account that they are now trying to repair the damaged relations with the users. If you (FB) are asking me to share my opinions in clear attempt to improve your business model (= make more money on me), don’t i deserve some compensation? The least you could do is showing me the results. Otherwise, why would I fill it out?

I view it as yet another expression of arrogance and greediness. On the one hand, FB hold their users as careless enough not to think why they are presented with this survey and just answer it because it is as cool to answer surveys as it is to send a virtual beer. On the other hand, the intention here is to actually feel the $15 billion evaluation with content, but why put money into it if we can just (ab)use our users? (at this point it becomes a cyclical argument :)

Or is there something else? Something that i am missing? Or a cultural gap that i am not managing to bridge?

Fun bubble 2.0 + some thoughts on FB

Thanks to Eszter for posting this:

On a different note, i keep on following the buzz about Facebook (FB) criticism due to deployment of Beacon platform.  For those who did not have a chance to follow, recently FB launched a platform that allows them to follow you to third-party websites (anybody said spyware?) and if you make a purchase there, news about it would go to your FB news feed (for your friends to see, follow your opinion leadership, and of course go and buy something from that company).  Of course they do not follow you to any website, but only to those who have an advertising agreement with FB, but nevertheless, this move raised a lot of antagonism and questions of privacy.  It also unleashed a wave of critique of FB and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

One of the things i noticed recently is people being surprised by FB non-responsiveness to the PR crisis it is going through.  The assumption is that to manage this wave of negativity, FB has to make substantive changes to the Beacon platform followed by a massive PR campaign.  Although i have my own critique of FB and more so questions about the nature of their business and its long-term sustainability, this later wave, particularly expectations for response, made me thinking.

I wonder if Zuckerberg’s strategy of ignoring the critique is actually the correct one.  I remember about over a year ago, FB introduced the news feed.  Back then it raised a lot of criticism from the privacy advocates and there was, not as strong, but still noticeable, negative buzz about FB.  I don’t remember the company investing as much in PR back then.  What it did was adding a couple of tweaks to make its users feel as if they were in charge of their privacy and in a matter of a couple of months the wave of negativity died and, as we can see today, people are happily using the feed.  In fact, can we imagine FB without the news feed these days?

Now, following the current criticism, FB also added some minor tweaks to the Beacon platform, and is now waiting for the wave of criticism to path.  The main threat to FB when its users would start massively leaving it.  Getting the users angry by exposing their Christmass surprises is indeed a step in that direction.  But in my (unsupported by any kind of evidence) opinion this is not enough.  Simply because most of FB users do not care or do not realize what is going on.  Talking to my friends, for example, i gain further support to an intuition that people don’t really view it as a big deal.  They continue logging into their FB account, poke each other, bite, send virtual gifts and drinks, etc.  and at the end of the day this is all FB needs.

So, from FB point of view,the business is as usual and all they need to do is wait until the critique in mass media and the blogosphere dies out.  After all how long can this be news/blog-worthy?  People will get bored and it will happen sooner than we can think.  Once the wave of negative publicity is no longer there, the advertisers will come back, and the next thing we know Beacon will be a recognized standard in the industry.  Doesn’t it sound as a logic scenario?

I still have a sense that the basic idea behind FB is bubblish (linking back to the video :), but maybe at the end of the day, FB is actually more strategic about how it is handling the current crisis than what it appears in the press and the blogosphere?