Facebook making mistakes with Beacon

By November 23, 2007 3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I posted some details on Facebook’s new advertising platform.  I described what they are doing, said it was smart that they are trying to leverage the trust/friend relationships in the site, but warned that the execution would be difficult.

The key risk, as highlighted in the comments, and also by Alan over on Broadstuff, is that greed triumphs over wisdom and the trust/friend relationships get turned in conduits for advertising spam.  At the limit we might all stop using Facebook because we tire of getting constantly inundated by messages about what our friends are buying.

At the moment we trust Facebook not to abuse the information we put into the site – including who aourfriends are.  But this type of trust is a fragile thing and once broken it is very difficult to repair.

It is for this reason I concluded my last post by saying that the execution would be tricky, but I also said that so far Facebook seemed to understand the risks and challenges.

It looks like I was wrong.

First a little example of how the Facebook Beacon system works from Joho (thanks to Fred for the pointer):

The new ad infrastructure enables Facebook to extend their reach onto other companies’ sites. For example, if you rent a copy of “Biodome” from, Blockbuster will look for a Facebook cookie on your computer. If it finds one, it will send a ping to Facebook. The Blockbuster site will pop up a “toast” (= popup) asking if you want to let your friends at Facebook know that you rented “Biodome.” If you say yes, next time you log into Facebook, Facebook will ask you to confirm that you want to let your friends know of your recent rental. If you say yes, that becomes an event that’s propagated in the news feed going to your friends.

And now about how they are getting the execution wrong, also from Joho:

Facebook gets the defaults wrong in two very significant areas.

When Blockbuster gives you the popup asking if you want to let your Facebook friends know about your rental, if you do not respond in fifteen seconds, the popup goes away … and a “yes” is sent to Facebook. Wow, is that not what should happen! Not responding far more likely indicates confusion or dismissal-through-inaction than someone thinking “I’ll save myself the click.”

Further, we are not allowed to opt out of the system. At your Facebook profile, you can review a list of all the sites you’ve been to that have presented you with the Facebook spam-your-friends option, and you can opt out of the sites one at a time. But you cannot press a big red button that will take you out of the system entirely. So, if you’ve deselected Blockbuster and the Manly Sexual Inadequacy Clinic from the list, if you go to a new site that’s done the deal with Facebook, you’ll get the popup again there. We should be allowed to Just Say No, once and for all.

It is often the small things that are the difference between success and failure.  In this case getting the defaults wrong could destroy the trust in the whole system.