Facebook Beacon update: No activities published without users proactively consenting

Updated: On November 6, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg proudly launched the new services (Techmeme) that he expected to redefine the advertising business.“People influence people.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

Updated: On November 6, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg proudly launched the new services (Techmeme) that he expected to redefine the advertising business.

“People influence people. Nothing influences people more than are recommendation from a trusted friend. A trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message. A trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising," Zuckerberg said at the launch.

It turned out that he stepped on a hornet's nest with Beacon, which allowed members to easily share their activities, including transactions, on other websites, such as eBay and Fandango, with their Facebook friends.

The major problem is that Beacon was designed more with advertisers in mind than the people who make up the social graph, which as Zuckerberg has said is the core of the service. Beacon as designed was not trustworthy as a referral mechanism.

Photo credit: Facebook

Post launch, Facebook took a pummeling by MoveOn.org, the press and a minority of members. The company went mostly silent and today finally released a Beacon update, which I and other bloggers and press received via email from OutCast, Facebook's PR firm (the information also showed up on Facebook's press group page).

Whatever happened to the CEO, who so proudly rolled out Beacon in New York City November 6, stepping up to explain why the company decided to make the modifications to the Beacon program?

Basically, Beacon went from being an opt-out to an opt-in program. No activities will be published without users proactively consenting is the new law of Beacon (new Beacon FAQ here).

If you are logged in to Facebook and visit a Beacon affiliate, an action you take could trigger that Web site to want to publish a "story" to Facebook. A notification is displayed in the lower right corner of your Facebook profile prior to publishing. You can opt out by clicking "No Thanks." Clicking “Close” will save the story but not publish it.

Here is the email from the Outcast, Facebook's PR firm:

We appreciate feedback from all Facebook users and made some changes to Beacon in the past day. Users now have more control over the stories that get published to their Mini-Feed and potentially to their friends’ News Feeds.

Here’s how the Beacon changes work:

Stories about actions users take on external websites will continue to be presented to users at the top of their News Feed the next time they return to Facebook. These stories will now always be expanded on their home page so they can see and read them clearly.

Users must click on “OK” in a new initial notification on their Facebook home page before the first Beacon story is published to their friends from each participating site. We recognize that users need to clearly understand Beacon before they first have a story published, and we will continue to refine this approach to give users choice.

If a user does nothing with the initial notification on Facebook, it will hide after some duration without a story being published. When a user takes a future action on a Beacon site, it will reappear and display all the potential stories along with the opportunity to click “OK” to publish or click “remove” to not publish.

Users will have clear options in ongoing notifications to either delete or publish. No stories will be published if users navigate away from their home page. If they delay in making this decision, the notification will hide and they can make a decision at a later time.

Clicking the “Help” link next to the story will take users to a full tutorial that explains exactly how Beacon works, with screenshots showing each step in the process.

These changes are in addition to those made earlier to improve the notifications on partner sites as follows:

Users were sometimes moving away from a page before a notification could be fully displayed. We changed the process so that we confirm the full display of the notification before any information can be sent back to a user’s Facebook account.

The notification appears more rapidly and is more clearly displayed.

There has been misinformation in the market about some key aspects of how Beacon works:

Participation in Beacon is free for all partner sites.

Beacon only allows for the sharing of specific actions on the specific sites participating in Beacon.

Beacon only has the potential to display actions to a selection of a user’s friends through News Feed and on a user’s Mini-Feed.

Facebook is not sharing user information with participating sites and never sells user information.

As with all its products, Facebook will continue to iterate quickly and listen to feedback from its users.

The Beacon opt-in change will cost Facebook revenue in the short run, but over the long haul maintaining the respect, trust and loyalty of members could have a more profound payoff. With $240 million in the bank (disregard the $15 billion valuation as less than relevant), Facebook has money to make a lasting impression.

Update: Brad Stone of the NYT talks to Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president of product marketing and operations at Facebook, about the Beacon changes. Here is part of the exchange that exposes some of the thinking among the Facebook executives.

Q. Why not give people a universal opt-out of the Beacon service?

A. “We think the right way to offer this is on a site-by-site basis. We want people to see how the product behaves on different sites.”

My take: In their judgement, universal opt-out is not what people want. Clearly it's not what advertisers want, but give people the choice to decide or at least come clean on the issue. If it's such a great feature, people won't turn it off. I would guess that Facebook wants a reprieve from the potential killing this golden goose. Given time, more people could find it acceptable and even useful as a counterpoint to the vocal crowd that has forced Facebook's hand to this point.

Q. But some people are asking for a single opt-out.

A. “One of the things we try to do is listen to feedback as much as possible. Just to give you where a lot of this feedback is coming from, it’s coming more from the press than specific users,” he said. “Right now, the right thing to do is to make sure we speak to actual users, not the pundits.”

My take: Don't blame the controversy on the pundits or MoveOn.org. The press and pundits are actual users, and unlike most members of Facebook they have a public platform to express their opinions. And it seems that the changes made reflect what the so-called pundits have been suggesting. The 50,000 plus MoveOn.org petition signers can't all be press and pundits.

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