Will Facebook's privacy and communication blunders turn it into the next AOL or MySpace?

Facebook's recent blunders around privacy make it vulnerable to revolt but something as simple as communicating with its members could save the day.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive

First and foremost, let me say that I like being on Facebook. I like hearing what my friends and family members are up to in their daily lives. I love seeing photos of relatives - and their kids - who I no longer get to see very often. I also enjoy reading the news links that my professional contacts post on their pages.

I realize that Facebook is using that information to compile another profile about me - one that tells marketers that I'm a married Latino guy who just celebrated a birthday, has kids, lives in the Bay Area, is kind of a tech geek (kind of??) and doesn't participate in any of that Farmville or Mafia Wars crap. Surely, Facebook also knows which way I lean politically and religiously, even though I didn't include those details on my profile.

I'm OK with all of that. I log into Facebook knowing that I am freely sharing information about myself. It's not like I uploaded my income tax return or posted images of my kids' social security cards. I share what I share because I'm not paranoid about it. And, more importantly, I've restricted most of the information about me to a network of people that I've invited or accepted into my Facebook world.

But I also count on Facebook to be responsible with my personal information, to understand that while I'm a pretty open guy, there are some things that I prefer to be kept behind the walls of Facebook. That's why privacy settings are so important - even to a guy like me who isn't paranoid about privacy.

So I can only imagine how the really truly paranoid types react when they read stories about how a major security flaw allowed people to view the live chats of their friends. More importantly, I wonder how those same people reacted when Facebook issued a very ho-hum response, one that seemed to insult our collective intelligence by downplaying this major security breech as a "bug" that caused an "inconvenience."

Likewise, how do we respond when we read news stories with headlines such as, "Facebook's new features secretly add apps to your profile," or "Does your privacy matter? Not according to Facebook." Look no further than ZDNet's own Jennifer Leggio, our resident social networking expert who recently scaled down her FB experience in the name of privacy and security, or Jason Perlow, who says he's "contemplating Facebook Hara-Kari" and takes the time to create "An Advanced User Guide to Social Networking Privacy."

The latter is a very helpful blog post, complete with images and all. But do you know what the biggest problem with that post is? Jason Perlow wrote it. Not that Jason isn't a fine writer - but that's something that really should have come out of Facebook's offices, not the ZDNet site. (Not that we want to turn away traffic, mind you.)

When it comes to innovative ways to enhance the Facebook experience, Mark Zuckerberg and team are moving full-speed ahead. And when it comes to expanding the Facebook ecosystem, the team has been top-notch. But when it comes to communicating what it's doing, the Facebook teams gets a big fat "#FAIL."

Don't get me wrong. The PR team at Facebook is great about getting news and information to guys like me, members of the press and blogosphere who can share details of their announcements to broader audiences.

But why isn't anyone at Facebook talking to the members themselves? Why didn't anyone at Facebook send an e-mail (even within Facebook's e-mail system) to inform us about the problem with chat and how the team moved quickly to fix it? Why didn't anyone at Facebook write up some guidelines on how to address changes to the  privacy settings? Why didn't anyone at Facebook post an alert on our walls to let us know that something important needed our attention?

Instead, dozens of friends posted information about privacy settings as their status messages and - no surprise here - some of them were actually spreading incorrect information.

At its core, Facebook is a communications tool. And yet, Facebook is the worst at communicating with its members. The company shouldn't just post something on the Facebook fan site (or whatever it's called these days) and assume that every member will see it. It should be sending each of us a link to that post - either on our walls or in our inboxes - so we can easily find it and, more importantly, so that we get the correct information.

Yes, we love Facebook and we come back day after day after day. But that doesn't mean we're opposed to walking away from the whole damn thing. Contrary to popular belief, guilt alone won't keep me from deactivating my Facebook account.

Bottom line: It's time for Facebook to step up its game when it comes to communicating with its members. Otherwise, Facebook could be on track to become the next AOL or even MySpace - a big deal Internet destination during its heyday but easily forgotten when something newer and better comes along.

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