Facebook Change to User Emails is Case Study in the Limits of Spin

The @Facebook.com Bait and Switch

As you’re likely aware, recently Facebook changed the email settings of all users so that the email they signed up with is no longer visible – replaced by their @facebook.com email address.  The company rolled out an email service back in 2010.  My guess is that adoption was lagging so given the new pressure they’re under as a result of their IPO to monetize the service, they made the switch.

They’re perfectly entitled to do this; after all they’re a private company providing a free service to users.

HOWEVER, what you’re ENTITLED to do and what you SHOULD do are two completely different things.

MOREOVER, WE do not control the language – THE PEOPLE DO (in this case, the users).

Case in point: Nick Bilton of the New York Times had a curious exchange with Facebook’s PR staff (“On Facebook, the Semantics of Visibility vs. Privacy“) about the change and received this response:

“When I called Facebook on Monday to ask why the company had changed the settings for the display of people’s e-mail addresses without their permission, potentially violating users’ privacy, I was told that the swap was not a “privacy” change, but rather a “visibility setting” change.

I offered a genuinely confused response to Jaime Schopflin, a Facebook spokeswoman I spoke with. “Um, isn’t changing the visibility of something actually changing the privacy setting?” I asked.”

Facebook’s linguistic parsing has legitimacy in Facebooks’ eyes – but likely not to anyone else.

That’s a problem for Facebook because they’re dependent on its users (whose aggregate  use of the platform is the basis for their sales pitch to advertisers), whose perceptions are more important than their own.

Worse for Facebook, they have stiff competition in social networking from a variety of other service providers and as I’ve mentioned before it’s easier than ever for people to switch wholesale to another platform that serves their needs better.  The more they continue to operate in a bubble with no concern for how their actions will be perceived by users – the more users they stand to lose.

How can an organization avoid this problem?  There are a few simple guidelines to follow:

  1. Take the Temperature of the Room: for Facebook that means recognizing that they’ve already contributed to a thriving narrative about themselves that they are hellbent on undermining users’ privacy.  It doesn’t matter if Facebook staff actually think that narrative is true – enough of the public (particularly opinion leaders) does so that is the reality.  You have to frame all of your moves in the context of that narrative which means an organization like Facebook needs to be hypersensitive to changes that could be perceived as undermining users’ privacy.
  2. Be Transparent: a primary reason Facebook is taking a beating for this change is that they did it stealthily without adequately informing users of the change (thus allowing it to be a ‘big reveal’ when someone discovered it was happening).  There’s enough sensationalism in the world without an organization creating more by blundering into a change.
  3. Pace Yourself: often initial reactions are based on emotion rather than rationality and if you give people enough time to absorb, digest, marinate in and otherwise acclimate to a change – they’ll be okay with it.  Had Facebook announced that the change was coming in a transparent way and then rolled it out later, that would allow people to get used to the idea and past a knee-jerk reaction based on impulses from the reptile portion of our brain.
  4. Opt-in NOT Opt-out: rather than cramming a feature or service down a user’s throat (Facebook’s S.O.P.), give them the choice.  You can even strongly suggest or incentivise a change by putting it right in front of their faces or offering them some sort of benefit.  What if Facebook had, instead, driven users to adopt their @facebook.com email by letting them know that their messaging would eventually be disabled if they didn’t?

Unfortunately Facebook users can likely expect more intrusive changes to their social experience on the platform as the company has painted itself into a corner with its IPO.  Hopefully they handle the next series of changes differently.

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