Facebook. It’s hot. It’s become one of the most popular social networking sites mere months after opening up to the masses. It’s cozying up to, and getting tons of cash from the big boys.
But what does it want to be when it grows up?
Some of its recent actions suggest that it’s a little confused.
If it wants to stay the adult equivalent of the college facebook, then I guess it makes sense to have a terms of service that requires that people use real first and last names on their accounts, a security measure that has its roots in Facebook’s beginnings. And to boot off people using pseudonyms. But then it won’t really be an inclusive social networking site, will it? Lots of "people" who would join, and bring their rich social interactions, will find someplace else to (net)work and play.
If it wants to enforce its own definition of obscenity on the entire community, in direct contradiction to US law, by banning photos of a legal act, breastfeeding, while allowing things like pro-anorexia groups, the company certainly has the right. It’s not smart to alienate current and future customers, but it is their playground,so they can set the rules. They have every right to define obscenity as something that would make a 16 year old boy uncomfortable… in a bad way. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Facebook. It has tremendous potential as a social networking platform. But even as its valuation rises, it seems to be making short-sighted business decisions that will ultimately affect its future growth.
Personally I like the fact that I know my friends on Facebook are real, live people. I’m not likely to befriend an avatar. And I’m not a big fan of anonymous blogging. However, I do engage in other networks like Twitter with folks using pseudonyms. Sometimes I know their name "in real life" and sometimes I don’t. And I don’t care. Wouldn’t the smarter decision be to allow pseudonyms, but require that it be acknowledged in the profile? Transparency. You have the right to know that Jon Swift is a pseudonym before you friend him, but it is ridiculous to require his real name. His online friends don’t require it. Why should Facebook?
And the obscenity thing. The legal definition of obscenity is complex (and by the way, doesn’t even apply to breastfeeding in public which is legal in all 50 US States.) In the US, we rely on the Miller test. Facebook on the other hand appears to be applying the frat boy test. Or something. Truly, they have to straighten this out. Either Facebook supports free speech or it doesn’t. And "doesn’t" is a really bad business decision which doesn’t have to be made explicitly. Inconsistent application of community standards accomplishes the same thing.
It’s time for Facebook to grow up. Think about the long term implications of its actions. Understand that the seemingly trivial issues of breastfeeding moms and anonymous avatars are fundamental business decisions that ultimately will affect its ability to become the preferred public social networking platform.
UPDATE 11/2: In this corner Microsoft and Facebook. And in this corner Google and everyone else. Ding Ding. Yesterday the Internet was abuzz with the Google OpenSocial announcement, and today the kids at Facebook are looking at a whole new world. They still have the users and a very powerful Big Brother in Redmond. But they can’t afford to keep making stupid mistakes. Because it seems we have a viable alternative.