Who’s the Boss? Why Facebook Can’t Get Its Head Around Our Privacy Concerns

I’ve seen it before. Technology companies that don’t understand the customer mindset. Coming from a packaged goods background, I am trained to see my consumer as my most important constituency. But coming from a technology background, Mark Zuckerberg seems to have greater empathy for developers than users.

Last month, Facebook hosted a day of presentations, talks and break out sessions known as F8. As someone in the digital community, I tuned in for a streamed recording of Zuckerberg’s keynote speech, which outlined the dramatic changes that Facebook was introducing to the world including the open graph protocol, greater sharing of data with partner sites and changes in privacy policies. It was an inspiring talk. At the end of it, he spoke about how medical students see opportunities in the world to save people, lawyers see opportunities to bring fairness to the world, and programmers want to make the world a better place. It’s a bit late at night, so I’ll have to go back to the tape to see whether I’ve summarized this appropriately, but I recall being inspired by his can-do, why-not, I’m an engineer attitude.

My next thought was the following: This has been an informative and well-produced little presentation. I watched it because I’m a digital junkie, but, what about the other 400 million people who use Facebook? How many of them watched this? And even if they did, would they have understood it? Open graph protocol???? I don’t think so. So, I was waiting to see how Facebook would communicate these innovations to its… customers, its users, not its third party developers and programmers, but the folks who give him the data and attention and time that is so valuable to everyone else. Nada. I did not see any plan to do so.

Then I logged into my Facebook account. As you can imagine, when I logged in, I was there for a specific reason. Perhaps I wanted to post something on my wall, or check my inbox or read comments to my profile. As soon as I arrived at the home page, I was met by a huge block of text and choices. It told me that my “likes” would be something-or-othered and I could decide what I wanted to share and not and… well, I didn’t have time for it. Click this, unclick that, and I went on my merry way.

Had I not watched the video, I would have been taken completely off guard. As it was, I was thrown off course, but had enough of a backdrop to be cautious about what I did and didn’t check. I do recall going to Twitter and expressing concern about whether my name would be posted on the websites of brands I “liked.” The Twitter community assured me there was nothing to worry about and went about tweeting about this interesting open graph protocol.

Tune in a week later, and the world has gone amok. Diaspora* is having hundreds of thousands of dollars offered to them to be the David to Zuckerberg’s Goliath. Public figures like Baratunde Thurston are publicly closing out their Facebook accounts and asking friends to unfriend them. And Zuckerberg is taking his story to the Washington Post to let us know he “hears us”… but that we really shouldn’t be so concerned.

And therein lies the problem. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t think like a consumer. And certainly not like the mainstream consumers that have come to Facebook of late. He thinks like a Gen Y, 20-something programmer. He’s never taken a marketing class; he never even finished his Harvard Core Curriculum requirements.

This, as I am waywardly getting to, is my point. Seeing the consumer as the constituent does not always come naturally. Several years ago, I served as interim marketing head for an up and coming website. The year before I arrived, revenue was $40 million. The year I got there, $70 million. And they were on track for $100 million. But they were somehow a little stuck. The content on their site was written by a group of contributors I will call “Coaches.” These people are compensated by the website based on the traffic and ad revenue they generate. This group was, up until I arrived, considered to be the company’s customer. What about the users, I asked? What about the advertisers? Ah, that was where I could provide insight to this technology-driven organization.

A year or so later, I worked with the website of a major travel and tourism commission. When I visited the site, I looked at it from a consumer point of view and was disappointed. Then I looked at it from an advertiser point of view and was disappointed. Who did the commission see as their customer? Answer: The hospitality industry and destination marketing organizations. Because these organizations were the ones who funded the tourism commission. Hence, if I visited the site and searched for information about ski resorts, I might be served with minutes from the ski resort marketing association annual meeting. Shocking to me, but it made total sense to the client – because we had different ideas as to who the key stakeholder was.

What Facebook seems to be lacking is a true and intuitive understanding of the consumer. The consumer that is the user – not the developer, not even the advertiser, but the individual members of the Facebook community. The four hundred million… people.

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