Is Facebook Evil, or Just Clueless?

Shall I quit Facebook?

Facebook’s recent fumble along policy, technology, and PR lines has many asking the question for the first time. Not just privacy activists or technophobes. But, regular people who are pretty savvy about the social Web. The perception is morphing from irritation to doubts about its integrity. That’s not a good thing.

I’ve never been a privacy freak. In my book, anyone who decides to live online is responsible for that choice, and no one’s forcing us to (over)share. But the recent flap is more serious than previous ones. True, Facebook users tend to resist change (ironic, isn’t it?), and the company has a history of clumsy and self-serving privacy moves. But with Quit Facebook Day looming, something is different this time. Loyal users feel misled by the “everyone can see everything” default and confused by the new settings. Privacy advocates smell blood. Even formerly apathetic Facebookers are on the fence. Has Facebook gone too far this time? Is it just clueless, or actually evil?

Two months ago, a close relative of mine who is, like me, an adoptive mom, was contacted on Facebook by the birth mother of her son. The birth mom had been out of touch with our family for over a decade. Her note was tactful and sensitive. But, my relative was startled by what was gleaned about our family, even with supposedly stringent privacy settings on our end. And when we set out to find out more about her before responding, we were amazed by how much we learned with little effort.

Neither of us had been friended by the young woman, and we had no friends in common. But within an hour, we learned where she worked, her complicated marital history, and the age, name, and gender of her young baby. We also pieced together other, less factual details about her life, including a recent family conflict.

My little experiment was nothing compared to the findings of bloggers who’ve set out to test Facebook’s privacy parameters. If you want an eye-opener, check out PC World‘s post about the intimate secrets of perfect strangers here. But, the experience, coupled with fresh headlines about Facebook’s tone-deaf handling of the latest changes, has chipped away at my confidence. And I’m someone who makes a living counseling clients on how to harness the power of Facebook as a brand marketing platform.

This week, Mark Zuckerberg mounted a belated charm offensive, admitting mistakes, penning op-ed pieces, and pledging the change that the community demands. If Facebook follows through with real changes, instead of empty statements, it will probably blow over. This time. But, Facebook is vulnerable to a creeping mistrust in its commitment to users. And though I won’t be canceling my account any time soon, it’s a little less fun than it used to be.

The Future of Celebrity Endorsement, Post-Tiger

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium sponsored by The Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal. The topic was “The Tiger Woods Effect” on celebrity endorsement, contract negotiation, morals clauses, and a host of other legal, marketing and PR issues. Here’s my take on the discussion, from a strictly brand marketing perspective.

Brands will still get in bed with celebrities. So to speak. Yes, some point to a decline in athletic endorsements, and they blame the Tiger Woods effect. But my feeling is that the economy’s had a great deal more impact on sports deals than the scandal. Happily, the recent McDonald’s signing of LeBron James is an indicator that athletes are still very much in the endorsement game.

But, brand endorsements will be more limited. Though celebrity deals will remain valuable and attractive for marketers, it’ll be a long while before we see another Accenture-style campaign in which a non-sports company bases its entire brand positioning on a single personality, no matter how iconic. A year ago it seemed smart and even strategic to tie your brand to a breakout athlete in a metaphor for consistently high performance. Today, not so much. Look for companies to fall back on the “Taste great, less filling”-style product endorsement. It’s more cost-effective and far less risky.

For celebrities, privacy is over. If you’re pulling down millions in endorsements based on your professional performance and public image, you simply can’t have secrets. The 24/7  nature of media, ubiquity of social platforms, and tabloid culture make it impossible.

Contracts will be shorter and more flexible, with clear exit strategies. A ten-year deal suddenly looks a lot less attractive than a three-year one. Terminations and how they may be communicated will be carefully negotiated to protect the reputations of both parties.

Morals clauses will be tighter. An interesting aspect of last night’s discussion was the mention of “reverse morals clauses” for endorsers. So, presumably, if a top athlete or celebrity signs with…oh, I don’t know, let’s say a Japanese automotive company, he might negotiate for compensation in the event of reputation damage resulting from something like a massive product recall. Sports law expert Michael McCann says “it’s bound to happen.”

Deals will be formed with full-blown risk and crisis management plans. Marketers have given lip service to preparedness in the past, but as IEG’s Jim Andrews points out in a recent AdAge piece, sponsors need to have a plan for quickly changing creative materials and be ready to communicate its position effectively in the event of negative fallout.

Social media is a flashpoint. Lawyers hate Twitter, because they feel it’s particularly risky for those celebrities who are already prone to entitled and outrageous behavior – top athletes, hip-hop artists, and even reality TV stars. Though my feeling is that the problem lies with the endorser, not the media platform, it’s very possible that social media behavior could be restricted or prohibited in endorsement agreements. You can thank Gilbert Arenas for that one.

Top celebrity agents will be humbler and nicer. Actually that’s a joke. I’ll save that one for my “cold day in hell” blog post.

Facebook Privacy Fix Is A Very Public Problem

As the mother of social networks, Facebook has struggled with privacy issues. It hasn’t gotten credit for many of the tools it offers, possibly because many users don’t understand them. So, the bar was raised a while back when CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised “a simpler model for privacy control.”

What happened instead was a very mixed reaction to its new privacy settings, and a fresh PR problem for the company. This time, it’s not just the user backlash that greets any Facebook change. There’s a measure of genuine confusion, doubt about its intentions, and a modest public relations blunder by Zuckerberg himself.

Given the build-up to the unveiling of the new privacy tool, the expectation was that Facebook would help users tighten their controls and limit the information they share with the world. Instead, the opposite message was communicated. It’s not all bad. The transition wizard forces you to examine your settings. That’s good, because many people, like me, signed up ages ago and have forgotten what we did then, if anything.

But instead of offering options based on a user’s current settings, the transition tool encourages its own recommendations. And, guess what? The recommended defaults nearly always urge sharing with “friends of friends” or “everyone.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager for “everyone” to see photos of my young daughter. But, that’s what Facebook recommends.

So does did CEO Mark Zuckerberg. To call attention to the change, Zuckerberg adjusted his own settings. Good PR move, right? But perhaps he didn’t realize that his family photos and contacts would be available to “friends of friends.” Or maybe he was just setting an example in following the recommended defaults. Facebook claims that he always meant to make certain areas accessible to everyone. Yet, mysteriously, after and others rifled through them and posted many online, Zuckerberg’s settings were changed to make personal photos off-limits.

I can’t blame Zuckerberg for his about-face. Who wouldn’t want to keep their personal photos safe from prying eyes…and snarky gossip websites? The good news for users is that the online community has jumped into the breach. Within a day or two of the launch of the new settings, hundreds of blog posts appeared with clear, how-to tips and guidelines on protecting privacy and identity on Facebook. And, to be fair, Facebook’s put plenty of information on its own site.

In explaining the default, Facebook told Reuters that making updates available to everyone is “the way the world is moving.” That may be true, but in pushing members to open up online, Facebook is both becoming more Twitter-like, and seeming to bow to pressure to monetize the wealth of personal user information on the site. Both risk eliminating the very thing that many members found so appealing about it in the first place.

The Face Of Online Anonymity

After becoming a parent, I was briefly obsessed with the anonymous online community UrbanBaby. UB was ostensibly about parenting, but it became known as a place where sleep-deprived moms would confess embarrassing secrets. As New York magazine put it, the anonymity was like a blend of “truth serum and a very strong cocktail.”  Beyond the oversharing, UB could be snarky, even nasty. Insults flew over issues like social status, income, race, and – that hottest of hot buttons – school rankings. (Yes, even that.) I doubted if the moms posting hateful or bigoted comments would dream of such behavior in real life. Who were they? Could the jealous troll behind those noxious barbs possibly be anyone I knew?

I quit UB, but I’m still fascinated by how we behave if we’re incognito – or think we are. The recent lawsuit brought by Liskula Cohen is a reminder of the hazards of crossing the line, online. Cohen brought charges against an anonymous enemy who posted vicious insults about her on a blog called “Skanks in NYC.” The judge ultimately ordered Google, its Web host, to give up the blogger’s identity. More interesting, though, is the countersuit — the outed blogger is now suing Google for $15 million for violating her right to privacy.

The case is troubling for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t bode well for online privacy, even in situations where it might be considered essential, like political dissent. Second, Cohen will forever be publicly associated with the so-called “skank suit,” which is probably not what she intended when she set out to identify her antagonist.

Most of us have experienced Web discussions that get out of hand under cover of online pseudonyms or no identification at all. Studies call it “disinhibition.” More like the online equivalent of a barroom brawl. The barroom effect, however, is both good and bad. Anonymous discussions are far more likely to deteriorate into gossip, trivia, and worse. But, they tend to be livelier, more interesting, and more robust than those where real names are used. Bottom line, they’re more fun.

So, what to do? There are practical suggestions known to many of those who manage Web communities. In most cases, tight guidelines and effective moderation of online discussions help. Mandatory registration also tends to screen out the truly disruptive players. A club, it seems, is better than a mob. But, as the digital culture and technology increasingly push the limits of free expression, one thing is clear. On the Web, very little is secret, and no one is truly anonymous.