Facebook’s Interesting Week

Facebook's_first_day_of_tradingBy now most people have heard all of the news reports about Facebook’s initial public offering, and how the world now has a new crop of instant millionaires and billionaires.

But the news last week wasn’t all roses for Facebook. For one thing, it became clear as Day 1 of trading ground on that Facebook shares weren’t going to increase in value. Indeed, it took the underwriters stepping in with institutional buying to keep the share price (barely) above the initial offering price of $38 per share.

And there was the news of GM dissing Facebook by announcing that it is dropping its paid advertising program with the social network … evidently due to Facebook’s failure to convince GM marketing execs of the effectiveness of its program.

But there was even more. Consider this news report: Facebook was hit with a $15 billion privacy lawsuit on the very first day of public trading. Filed on behalf of a number of Facebook’s users, the class action suit claims that Facebook invaded personal privacy by tracking users’ web usage.

The lawsuit cites a bevy of case law and regulations as part of the briefing documentation, including the Federal Wiretap Act, the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, and various California statutes.

Consider the implications if this suit is at all successful:  Now that it is a public company, Facebook is under increased pressure to increase its advertising revenues rapidly – which means collecting yet more user data to help it target paid advertising effectively and thus command premium pricing.

But if the lawsuit is successful, it could prevent Facebook from collecting the very data it uses to serve up advertising based on relevant audience targets.

On the other hand, similar cases brought against Facebook in recent years have been thrown out of court because browser cookies haven’t been viewed as “wiretaps.” Moreover, plaintiffs have had difficulty in proving any “harm” as a result.

Of course, there was some additional very good news this past week for Facebook – at least for CEO Mark Zuckerberg: He got married.

… Which in the end may turn out to deliver far more happiness and fulfillment than all the money in the world ever could do.

Good marriages are like that … so let’s all hope for the very best for Mr. Zuckerberg.

The Big Dig: Scraping and Scooping the Web

Data ScrapersI’ve blogged before about how the Internet is making people’s lives pretty much an open book.

Most people who are online are pretty aware of how their reputation can be affected by their Facebook or MySpace pages and other public or quasi-public online information. But The Wall Street Journal has been publishing a series of stories on how much more pervasive than that digital snooping has become.

The series is titled “What They Know” … and it’s well-worth checking out. The most recent article appeared on the front page of the October 12, 2010 edition of the WSJ, and focuses on the phenomenon of “data scraping.”

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “scraping” is a method by which sophisticated software is used to access and scoop up information that has been posted anonymously on sites that are supposed to be closed to prying eyes. One example cited in the WSJ article of a site that has been scraped is PatientsLikeMe, which has message boards and forums dealing with mental disorders, depression and other issues that most people would prefer to keep private.

People who post on discussion forums like these do so using pseudonyms, and the identity of the posters is carefully guarded by the host sites.

But it turns out that these sites are little match for the sophisticated IT capabilities of companies like Nielsen and PeekYou, who are in the business of matching psychographics as well as demographics to individual people for purposes of serving up relevant advertising — and goodness knows what else.

Think of it as the “lifestyle” direct mail lists of yesteryear – but now on steroids.

PeekYou has applied for a patent on a system whereby it matches real people to the pseudonyms used on forums, blogs, Twitter and other social media outlets. Taking a “peek” at the company’s patent application reveals the great lengths their systems go to ferret out and cross-analyze small, innocuous bits of information that, taken together, find the “needle in a haystack” match to the actual individual:

 Birthday match
 Age match
 First name match
 Nickname match
 Middle name match
 Middle initial match
 Gender match
 e-Mail address match
 Phone number match
 Physical address match
 Username match

When you consider that the same type of powerful computers that are used to analyze and process search engine queries are the ones processing millions or billions of information bits and instantaneously testing and slotting them based on relational patterns … it’s not hard to understand how, over time, eerily accurate portraits of individuals can be drawn that not only correctly reflect the “demographics” of the person, but also a host of psychographic and behavioral aspects such as:

 Shopping habits
 Recreational pursuits
 Personal finance profile
 Health information
 Political leanings
 Hobbies and interests
 Spirituality/religiosity
 Sexual preference or sexual proclivities

The WSJ articles detail how web sites are attempting to stay one step ahead of the “scrapers” by employing software that alerts them to suspicious “bot” activity on forums and other password-protected areas. It’s often a losing battle … and is that particularly surprising?

These days, not even the Orthodox monks at Mount Athos are protected, probably!

An About-Face on Facebook?

Facebook logoThis past week, social networking site Facebook trumpeted the fact that is signed up its 500 millionth member. That’s an impressive statistic — and all the more so when you realize that Facebook had only about 100 million registrants just two short years ago.

And the site is truly international these days, with ~70% of Facebook users living someplace other than the USA.

But there are some interesting rumblings in cyberspace these days that suggest the bloom may be off the rose for Facebook. After having climbed to the #1 perch in terms of registrations and site traffic, there are some intriguing new signs that all is not well in Farmville – or elsewhere in the land of Facebook.

Inside Facebook, an independent research entity that tracks the Facebook platform for developers and marketers, is reporting new Facebook registrations dropped in June to ~250,000. That may still seem like a lot of people, but it’s a far cry from the ~7.7 million new registrants in May.

Furthermore, looking at age demographics, Inside Facebook has concluded that in the critical 26-34 age group, the total number of U.S. users active on Facebook actually declined during the month of June.

Are these people being swayed by the privacy debate that’s happening concerning how much visibility Facebook postings are being given on Google and other search engines?

That may be one explanation for the decline, but there could be other forces at work as well. The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index report from ForeSee Results, a web research and consulting firm, places Facebook’s ranking near dead-last on a list of 30 major online web sites in terms of customer satisfaction with site design and utility.

Who scored highest? Dowdy old Wikipedia. Even boring government sites like the IRS scored better.

It’s evident the issue goes far beyond privacy concerns. There’s also confusion or irritation with Facebook’s ever-changing user interface. As Aaron Shapiro wrote recently in Media Post’s Online Media Daily:

“The truth is, Facebook isn’t fun to use anymore. It’s become a chore, just one more place that busy people have to log in to stay up-to-date. And Facebook is making the goal of staying up-to-date harder and harder to achieve. There are so many apps like Farmville producing status updates, as well as people using Facebook as their repository for passing thoughts and private/public conversations, I have to sort through tons of what I don’t want to read before I get to something I want or need to know.”

Back in its early days, the beauty of Facebook was that it provided such an easy framework to stay connected with family and friends. It was a way to share photos and other personal information quickly – and almost effortlessly – with far-flung contacts all over the world.

Those attributes seem to have gotten buried in all of the “spammy” hi-jinks and gimmicks that characterize so much of today’s Facebook.

Considering the growing dissatisfaction with Facebook, ranging from things like privacy (mis)management and ubiquitous advertising to confusion with the site’s ever-changing design and irritating lack of utility, some industry watchers are predicting that users will begin seriously looking at alternatives. Despite Facebook’s huge presence and large pool of registrants, they may find simpler, purer sites out there that are more to their liking. Several that could be beneficiaries of the “Facebook fall-off” are Diaspora and Collegiate Nation.

Your life online: You can run, but you can’t hide.

Vetting Job Candidates OnlineRecently, a Microsoft-commmissioned survey conducted by Cross-Tab Marketing Services discovered that fewer than 10% of U.S. consumers believe information found online about them would have a negative impact on their ability to get a job.

How clueless. That same survey also queried ~1,200 recruiters and human resources personnel. It found that these professionals are highly likely to research the online profile and online activities of job candidates as part of their vetting and winnowing process.

Fully 70% of them reported that they’ve rejected candidates based on what they found.

Going further, the HR survey found that the majority of companies have made online screening a formal part of the hiring process, and the expectation is that online vetting will become even more important in the years ahead.

Fortunately, it’s not just negative information that counts, because ~85% of the HR respondents reported that discovering a positive online presence influences their hiring decisions at least to some degree … and the stronger and more relevant to the candidate’s prospective job responsibilities, the better.

When asked to comment on what types of online information was “appropriate” for companies to assess, consumer respondents’ views were at sharp odds with the HR professionals:

Viewing photo and video sharing sites: ~44% of consumers feel these are inappropriate to consider … yet ~60% of recruiters and HR professionals are busy checking them.

Looking at social networking sites like Facebook: ~43% of consumers (and ~56% of younger consumers under the age of 25) feel that these should be off-limits … but ~63% of the HR folks review them.

 Consumers are even more critical of HR personnel reviewing sites such as online gaming, classified ad sites like Craigslist, and “virtual worlds” … yet more than 25% of HR professionals are snooping around those types of sites as well.

And let’s not forget the search engines. Not only do many individuals “Google” their name to see what’s out there on them in Cyberspace, HR personnel do it as well. In fact, that’s the most prevalent online investigative tool – done by nearly 80% of the HR professionals who participated in the Microsoft survey.

Why are job candidates rejected? It’s for the expected reasons, including:

 Concerns about a candidate’s lifestyle (~58%)
 Inappropriate comments and text written by the candidate (~56%)
 Unsuitable photos, video and information (~55%)
 Inappropriate comments or text written by friends and relatives (~43%)
 Comments criticizing previous employers, co-workers or clients (~40%)

There’s nothing really new about this list – people have been passed over for jobs for reasons like these since way back before computers and the Internet. But today, it’s all out there – in plain view and just a few quick keystrokes away. That’s a huge difference.

And there’s one other important thing to remember: the stuff tends to live out there in cyberspace for a long, long time, and attempts to squelch unflattering information are usually fruitless.

Internet privacy legislation: What are the implications?

Internet privacyThe issue of online privacy – the degree to which publishers are allowed to capture and use information derived from consumer online behavior – has been an undercurrent of concern since the very early days of the Internet. What is the right balance that allows the web to be used for marketing and commerce … but that also allows for an acceptable degree of consumer privacy?

The privacy issue has gathered steam in recent years. Today, proposed legislation affecting EU countries would dictate that web cookies (snippets of computer code) cannot be placed on a user’s computer unless it is strictly necessary for the purposes of enabling the use of a service explicitly requested by the user.

If such legislation is enacted, the implications for web publishers would be far-reaching. After all, cookies are currently used for many purposes, including web analytics, session management, content management, personalization, managing preferences, and calculating advertising revenues.

Cookies are the means by which all of these functions give the web its commercial foundation and functionality. Without them, the web would be little more than another broadcast medium for viewing non-customized information on a computer screen instead of on paper or on a TV screen.

And now those same privacy discussions are beginning to happen among U.S. lawmakers. Legislation is being crafted in Congress that may restrict the use of cookies along with other forms of “personally identifiable” information.

Is this a good development, or not?

It’s certainly true that some unscrupulous web sites and publishers have used cookies as a means to engage in nefarious behavior. But in an attempt to eliminate those exceptions, is it wise for legislation to wipe away all of the very real benefits web users derive from services that utilize cookies as the means to deliver them?

It’s pretty clear that one of the obvious impacts privacy legislation would have is on publishers who earn revenues from advertising. The inability to utilize cookies when serving online ads would affect the way the ads perform. Without cookies, ad servers are unable to perform the most basic functions such as fraud analysis and frequency capping (limiting the number of ads shown to a viewer).

In addition, publishers would lose the ability to measure “conversion” rates – tracking specific actions tied to ad revenue calculation such as downloading a white paper or to make a purchase – that is the foundation for many ad compensation packages. Or to serve a specific ad to someone who has expressed prior interest in a topic or product.

The data that these and other cookie-enabled actions provide is the basis of most online advertising programs. Without cookies, advertisers would have to purchase far more impressions served to swaths of people who may or may not be interested. Web analytics would also become more challenging; third-party services such as Web Trends and Google Analytics tap into cookies as a way to provide information and answers.

The claim that without legislation, people don’t have ways to limit the proliferation of cookies on their computers is just not accurate. Not only do many publishers provide ways for consumers to opt out of targeting techniques, surveys show that a significant proportion of Internet users — perhaps one third — routinely delete cookies from their computers. And ~10% have them permanently blocked.

It’s good for lawmakers to be looking at the privacy implications of the Internet. After all, the web continues to evolve at a quick pace, with new functionalities coming to the fore every day that may have implications on consumer privacy. But at the same time, it’s important to really think through the full ramifications of laws that, while well intentioned, would have negative consequences on everyone if enacted.