I originally posted this on May 14, 2011. Now that Google is launching Google Plus, this almost looks prophetic.
Before the Internet was available, we pre-web surfers used what was called a BBS (bulletin board service). In the BBS era, there were lists of phone numbers we could call via modem and play games, exchange email, interact with other surfers, etc. Many were free, but some of the more elaborate sites were subscription based. One of the more popular boards in the Atlanta area had hundreds of paid subscribers. We even held a weekly meeting at a local restaurant so we could meet each other in person.
It was a great social network. But then something changed. The board owner became arrogant. Who knows why this happened, but success created a god-syndrome. The board began making strict rules and treating everyone as though they were subjugates. There was no real competition for this board, for no one offered services quite as well as this BBS. Perhaps this is why they felt empowered to treat subscribers like peasants.
They over estimated their value. As things grew hard on users, people held on for a while, but eventually decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. When it became work to appease the cybergods, the fun was gone. And people came because they enjoyed it. One by one we cancelled our subscriptions and the company went out of business.
I see the same thing occurring in Facebook today. Each change the company implements creates more restrictions, fewer benefits, and more banned subscribers. The founders have forgotten what drew users to the site. Consider the changes that have occurred within the last year.
Every few months Facebook quietly implements a new change that exposes users to privacy concerns. It gives great advantage to those who pay to look at your private information, but it always appears under the table. Anyone who keeps a close eye on the mutating user agreements discovers the change, but it is never made in a way that’s transparent to every user. It’s hard to trust a company when users find out they’ve been exposed without their knowledge. We find out that marketing companies are harvesting our information at will. Buried deep in Facebook’s documentation is a list of instructions for protecting your info. It’s usually convoluted and requires multiple steps to opt out of each piece of information you don’t want exposed. Unfortunately, by the time most users find out about the change, countless marketers have already gathered their information.
It seems that each week a new virus makes the rounds on Facebook. They usually come in the form of a note promising pictures or a news article to anyone who clicks. Those who click become spammers for the hacker. Sometimes the hacker is someone who paid for advertisement on Facebook. Often, these applications or scripts compromise user’s computers or Facebook accounts. It amazes me that Facebook has no virus protection nor do they police these rogue sites and messages. Viruses run for weeks, being posted with known viruses on user’s walls and sending baited messages to all friends of the infected user. Why doesn’t Facebook stop rogue posts? Once they become known, they should be able to have a spam guard watching for future posts. The rest of corporate America is able to do this. Why not a company that is based on cutting edge technology? It gives the impression that there is no concern for user safety.
Paid advertisement is often given to disreputable companies. A year ago, my wife saw an ad for a ‘free CD’ for something that seemed relevant. I went to the site and saw that in the fine print, buried deep in the user agreement was a statement that ordering the ‘free CD’ created a $79 charge for their services. She had to pay for shipping of the CD, so they had her credit card. I immediately canceled the service, but they still charged us. Not only that, we started getting other charges from daughter companies. We had three charges for more than $200 because we got a ‘free’ CD. Then a week later, more charges began appearing for unknown services and under various company names connected with the ‘free’ offer. It was a nightmare getting these charges reversed and stopping the company.
Doesn’t Facebook know that the ads they approve are a reflection on their company? Facebook has an approval process, so scammers can’t place ads without the knowledge of the FB staff. Without taking precautions to protect their customers, it gives me the impression that the only concern is profit – not Facebook users.
Periodically, FB makes changes to their user agreements that restrict users. Recently, they’ve quietly put restrictions in place that have seriously impaired the way users can utilize their accounts. Most recently, they’ve began shutting down user accounts for self-promotion. For example, if an author releases a book and wants to host a giveaway on Facebook, this is no longer possible. At least not without paying one of Facebook’s third party applications to host it for you.
Several companies have made news when their company site was shut down for violating Facebook’s new rules. While most companies send notices out when their agreements change, Facebook does not do this. I once thought my bank was dishonest for burying a change along with advertisements sent with my bank statement, but at least they send out notifications. In Facebook’s world, it is your responsibility to watch over their documentation and identify changes.
Users are no longer permitted to ask visitors to ‘Like’ a page, or post a comment to enter a contest. Not only this, Facebook also doesn’t permit users to announce winners via Facebook. According to Facebook’s promotional guidelines, any contest must be used through Apps on Facebook.
There are several problems with requiring an app. To me, the foremost issue is that in order to utilize an app, Facebook users are required to give the company sponsoring the app access to their personal information. When you click on the app, you are prompted with the following message:
Company Widget is requesting permission to do the following:
Access my basic information
Includes name, profile picture, gender, user ID, list of friends, and any other information I’ve shared with everyone.
I don’t know about you, but I’m unwilling to give my account information and access to my contacts to anyone that I don’t know and trust. I’ve turned away from many contests and applications because of the above. In fact, clicking on ‘Allow’ is exactly how the viruses and rogue sites manage to propagate. When you see someone post something on their wall like, “Can you believe a father did this to his children,” or, “Pictures of Osama’s death,” or any other similar viral post, you know they clicked to allow.
How can Facebook expect users to trust third party companies when they offer little protection to users? Known viruses and spammers continue to propagate long after Facebook should have intervened. Allowing companies access is how users become spammers for unscrupulous companies, yet it is now a requirement for companies who want users to participate according to the new rules. Sadly, I have no way of knowing if a company is legitimate unless I already trust them and know this app isn’t an imposter. And yes, some imposters pretend to be legitimate companies on Facebook.
Any time you are prompted to allow or install something through Facebook (or any other site for that matter), think carefully before you approve. If it’s not a company you can trust, you may be permitting your account to be the bait for someone else. Then they will have your info for marketing, and will take aim for your friends.
It’s for these reasons above and a few more that I’m convinced Facebook is existing on borrowed time. Opportunities arise when big companies think customers need them, and forget that they need customers. Once a company becomes arrogant, and thinks of themselves as something irreplaceable in the lives of their customers, a fall is on the horizon. Many companies have fallen prey to this problem. Some reinvent themselves in time to recover while others fall hard. Some will stay in denial until it’s too late.
As users become more and more frustrated and distrust grows, the door will be opened for someone to step in and become the next Facebook. Right now, Facebook has no real competition. Without competition, companies have no incentive to maintain customer service. It’s hard to lure away a happy customer, but as anger grows, any average company will look good. Facebook is only a good company away from falling. It’s only a matter of time before that good company steps up to the plate.
Originally Posted 5/14/2011