Blown To Bits

Mark Z: Grow Up

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010 by Harry Lewis

The more I learn about Facebook’s privacy problems, the more I am confirmed in my original guess about the root cause. It just looks like the company is being run by adolescents, or twenty-somethings whose idea of profitable fun and games is more appropriate for badly behaved teens.

So Mark, here is some unsolicited advice from your old college professor. It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished. A social network with 400 million people, how cool is that? But now you’ve got to grow up. There is a flesh and blood human being behind every profile. Those are real guns you are playing with now, loaded with ammo.

I had to read Ben Edelman’s post twice to be sure what it described was as simple as it seemed to be. Facebook claims — and has claimed repeatedly, including on occasions when its claim has been challenged — that when you click on an ad that appears on a Facebook page, the advertiser does not learn your Facebook identity, and all the profile information that lies behind it. Of course, the advertiser will know something about you, because it will have given Facebook some demographic parameters to limit who is shown the ads. So if the advertiser bought advertising space on Facebook and said it wants its ads shown only to people under 30 in the Boston area, when somebody clicks on an ad, Facebook will know that the person is under 30 and in the Boston area. But it shouldn’t know that the person is samjones478 or whatever; that would reveal a great deal more about the person who clicked, especially if samjones478 had accepted Facebook’s new default publicity settings (what Facebook misleadingly calls its “privacy settings”).

As recently as six weeks ago, Facebook was declaring flatly that it doesn’t share your identity with advertisers. “We don’t share your information with advertisers unless you tell us to (e.g. to get a sample, hear more, or enter a contest).” said Facebook’s Barry Schnitt. “Any assertion to the contrary is false. Period.” And that is a consistent line, not a Blumenthalian momentary lapse of precise language.

Turns out, it just isn’t true. When you click on an ad while you are viewing your own profile, or a page linked to from your profile, your username is part of the URL. The advertiser, before taking action on your click, can check your profile and customize its offer based on the personal information it finds there.

How useful is that information to an advertiser?

Well, consider the study Jeremy Bailenson did at Stanford at the time of the 2004 presidential election. Voters were shown pictures of the candidates, but only one of the candidates was actually shown accurately. The other candidate’s picture was morphed with a small amount of the subject’s own face (the subjects were on camera during the experiment). Voters’ preferences shifted significantly toward the candidate with whom the voters’ face had been morphed — and not one subject noticed the deception.

Since Bailenson talked about this at the Berkman Center last year, I have been thinking that images of our faces are a gold mine for advertisers. Now we have a too-good-to-be-true source of high quality facial images. Before serving an ad, the advertiser could just grab our profile photo and morph a little bit into a face appearing in the ad, to make it more effective.

Back to the main point. Facebook’s data on us is very valuable commercially. The changes to the privacy policies are not about creating a better social experience for us. They are about monetizing what Facebook knows about us. Fair enough; they are a business. But Facebook needs to be open about what it is doing. It needs to stop baiting and switching. And it absolutely needs to stop lying, which seems to be the appropriate term given that Facebook has continued to claim that it is not sharing user information even though it was put on notice months ago that it was doing exactly that.

Postscript: A friend pointed me to this account of IM’s from Zuckerberg back in his college days:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuck: Just ask.

Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?

Zuck: People just submitted it.

Zuck: I don’t know why.

Zuck: They “trust me”

Zuck: Dumb fucks.

A fabrication? Possibly. But it sounds right. The company issued a reassuring statement but would neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the instant messages. But there is sweet irony in the idea that Mark’s own age-19 misjudgment about openness would come back to bite him as his company struggles to persuade its 400 million users that it truly does deserve to be trusted with their private information.

2 Responses to “Mark Z: Grow Up”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Interesting post. But Zuckerberg’s youth doesn’t explain all the privacy missteps FB has made lately. Ostensibly, Mark was wise enough to hire some grownups in senior exec positions: Sheryl Sandberg, Elliot Schrage, to name a few. Have they swallowed the koolaid, or are they just MIA? Or is everyone at FB so eager to cash in that they’ll do just about anything to pump up the ad revenue numbers, including selling out their users?

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    I think leadership matters, especially in a privately held corporation. If you can’t deal with the leader’s style, you learn to, or move on.