Facebook’s Open Graph: Pros, Cons and the Future

PM Digital bloggers weigh-in on Facebook’s Open Graph.

Marketing Opportunities vs. Privacy

Suzy Sandberg:  When I first heard the details of Open Graph, I immediately went into Facebook to turn the feature off.  Facebook went with a pre-checked box to enable the Open Graph feature which requires unchecking to opt out.   We’ve seen this before — a Facebook platform change with privacy implications where the user must seek out and select new privacy settings in the application to undo a new feature.

Open Graph is getting buzz for two reasons:  one is its ability to socialize the internet in a new, unique way.  The other is the emergence of new privacy concerns, of which Facebook has already had its share of in the past.  Are the benefits of Open Graph really worth the positive buzz?  And/or how much of the privacy concerns are just noise?

I think it really depends on your point of view.  On the plus side, the Open Graph plug-in will bring socialization to the web in a way that hasn’t been done before.  The “like” button is often used in Facebook, and its familiarity with users could yield high usage rates making its adoption on websites take off quickly.  Large swaths of people are signing on to FourSquare, Gowalla and other location-based networks to share their info with friends, so Open Graph certainly won’t spook users of those applications.  In fact, sharing their likes online could be considered less intrusive than broadcasting personal info by GPS.  The younger demographic is comfortable with sharing online, so this new application may be quite appealing.

On the privacy side, there are four components of the issue.

  • Facebook users who see the identities of their friends listed on a website with the Open Graph plug in for “liking” the content on the page probably believe their identity is being disclosed to the masses.  In actuality, the only people who would see someone’s identity are other people in their network.  Assuming someone is ok with sharing their likes to friends, this isn’t an issue at all.  The majority of users, though, who don’t know anything about iframes and how this all works, may be spooked.  Facebook may get a bad rap because it’s too complex for people to understand. If such an objection goes viral and creates mass buzz as we’ve seen in the past, this program may go the way of Beacon.
  • If you don’t want your friends seeing which sites you “Like,” you will have legitimate privacy concerns.  You can always opt out, though.
  • Having to opt out is troublesome and the process is cumbersome.  Pre-checked boxes went away from reputable websites years ago because of CAN-SPAM, so Facebook is going against the grain here in terms of using the best industry practices.  I understand that Facebook wants wide adoption, but email marketers wanted big lists too – they ultimately understood and accepted that pre-checked boxes can be perceived as deceptive.
  • The most troublesome aspect of Open Graph from a privacy standpoint, and I imagine this is what New York Senator Charles Schumer and Moveon.org will latch on to, is that part of Open Graph entails a “small pilot program” with a few big sites (Yelp and Pandora, for example).  The partners in the pilot program do receive personal information on Facebook users including names, friend lists, interests and likes so that they can personalize the experience for users.  Facebook itself describes this information as public in their blog post explaining the program.  A person can opt out by checking a blue bar that appears at the top of the site, but I have to imagine that many users will not understand the purpose of the bar, meaning that these consumers have therefore not willingly agreed to share their personal information with the businesses in question.

A Boon for Marketers and Consumers Alike

Tim Kilroy:  So, what is the big deal with the Open Graph API?  Privacy, in the real true sense, has been dead ever since people starting using credit cards.  (Don’t blame Mark Zuckerberg for your lack of privacy; blame your participation in modern commerce!)  Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover know more about us than our spouses do. They know where we shop, where we buy gas, where we are when we take money out of the ATM.  Nothing you do is private.

For years and years, catalogers have been sharing data with each other.  (How else did you think that Williams-Sonoma started sending you catalogs after you bought something at Sur La Table?)  And for just as long, there have been marketing databases that essentially profile what kind of marketing you are likely to respond to based on assumptive demographics.  Based on your address and zip code, marketers all over the world can find out tons about you.

So, sharing the kinds of things that you “Like” on Facebook is pretty innocuous. You are clicking on a button that says “Like” and it gets broadcast to your network.  Your assumption of privacy ends at your public declaration of “Like”.

Are there issues with Facebook’s implementation? Sure.  Should it be easier to opt out?  Absolutely.  Should you have to opt in?  Well, I don’t know about that.  You have already made a public declaration of liking something…you are only exposing your data if you engage…the Open Graph isn’t pushed on you.  It doesn’t interrupt you; it only shares information if you actively participate.  Already opted in seems fine here because you must take an explicit action to share.

What is the opportunity?

This is a boon for marketers and consumers alike. Fundamentally, pervasive implementation of social marketing through Facebook’s API gives marketers a wonderful opportunity to personalize and customize their web experience based on explicit declarations of preference. This gives marketers an opportunity to present a unique, personalized experience to customers, even if they’ve never visited before.  This is powerful.

For consumers this is a great opportunity too.  If you have expressed on Facebook that you are a fan of ESPN, College Sports Network, MLB and the NBA, you might see more sports related merchandise when you visit a participating site.  This is great.  It may be a little “Minority Report” for some, but for most folks, allowing merchants and marketers to personalize their pitches to you is highly desirable.  You get to see more of the stuff that you want to see.  The devil is in the details, of course, some marketers will do a better job at this than others. But fundamentally, by allowing marketers a glimpse into what you like before they present to you gives them the opportunity to give you more wheat and less chaff. I think the privacy concerns are overblown.  By engaging with Facebook, you have already made public declarations about your affiliations. And marketers should be able to use information about you that you publicly disclose to serve you better.

For marketers, this is such an amazing opportunity, because you suddenly have deep access to potentially millions of visitors. You will be able to learn more about them, more about how they interact with your brands and how you can deliver them the right offer at the right time.

The big winner here is, of course, Facebook.  If the “Like” button gets deep acceptance across the web, Facebook has harnessed the power of 400 million minds to help them understand the web and how people use it.  That is infinitely more powerful than anything Google can do. Further, with all of these explicit preferences known, Facebook can uniquely target you with salient, relevant ads…this is the real reason for the Open Graph, but the ancillary benefit for marketers to know more about their customers and for customers to get more personalized services from marketers is a real win.

Final Thoughts:  The Importance of Clarity

Chris Paradysz:   The challenge with even the definition of “Privacy” is that its meaning differs for each user.  In Facebook’s case, unlike that other behemoth Google, they are ambiguous and often resort to using industry jargon to describe their practices which users could perceive as arrogant, naïve, or even black hat, the latter of which is what gets privacy advocates and AG’s all cranked up.  They are typically reactive with their policy changes instead of understanding their customer and the legislative rants around them which, unfortunately, is giving them an early and very expensive education.

No one really begrudges Facebook for trying to make money, but they would sure save themselves a lot of headache and goodwill if they’d be more open.  Isn’t shared candor social media’s intent, anyway?

For marketers, Open Graph should be a bonanza.  For consumers who let marketers in on their passions, it should be all good as long as Facebook understands who’s paying their bills and doesn’t corrupt the implicit trust they’ve created with their users.

Just ask MySpace.

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