Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Facebook and Value

In an interesting piece by Steve Coll of New America states:

Facebook has made jarring mistakes as its leaders have learned what it means to run a profit-motivated political and public forum. In 2009, for example, the corporation exposed Iranian dissidents to danger by unilaterally changing privacy rules that allowed the Iranian authorities to see the identities of activists’ online friends. The error was corrected quickly, but in general, Facebook has encouraged its users to accept greater and greater losses of privacy. Zuckerberg believes the world will be better off if it adopts “radical transparency,” as the journalist David Kirkpatrick put it in his book, “The Facebook Effect.”

Zuckerberg’s business model requires the trust and loyalty of his users so that he can make money from their participation, yet he must simultaneously stretch that trust by driving the site to maximize profits, including by selling users’ personal information. The I.P.O. last week will exacerbate this tension: Facebook’s huge valuation now puts pressure on the company’s strategists to increase its revenue-per-user. That means more ads, more data mining, and more creative thinking about new ways to commercialize the personal, cultural, political, and even revolutionary activity of users.

There is something vaguely dystopian about oppressed peoples in Syria or Iran seeking dignity and liberation inside a corporate sovereign that is, for its part, creating great wealth for its founders and asserting control over its users.

 Coll has some interesting reasons for leaving Facebook. In my case I had been on Facebook quite early on, driven there by my MIT grad students. It was interesting. But about two years ago I saw a disturbing trend. Namely that many of my "friends" were acquaintances of my children and then grandchildren. They were making statements which perhaps humorous amongst their closed groups could negatively reflect upon me. I did not agree with their comments and in fact found them a bit sophomoric. I also found that I was getting to see parts of their lives which frankly I had no interest in. Thus, with discretion being the greater part of valor, to quote from Henry IV Part 1, I withdrew.

But more importantly I asked what value this had. Google has substantial value. I find things, I get information, I keep current, and frankly I am infinitely more productive because of it. It creates true value. I saw none of that in Facebook. In fact Facebook was making decisions about me which I felt not only wrong but potentially injurious. It was at first interesting to see the comments, at the beginning, but I was soon overwhelmed about details that frankly went well beyond sound judgement.

For a business to have viability one must seek the value proposition, what is it doing for me, and at what cost? Facebook was of no value, in fact it was potentially a cost. Linkedin has "value" by tracking professionals, albeit of limited value. My life would not change if it went away. But Facebook could in my opinion have potential harm, thus my leaving.

Coll's article is worth the read.He has great insight to this and it is worth the read. It does pose the same question albeit in different terms. Somehow this issue has never been raised in terms of Facebook's long term value. Time will tell.