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Just How Helpful Can Facebook Be?

[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She has studied what makes some individuals embrace or avoid information technology. (She’s definitely one of the former.) Michelle helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Here's her take on Facebook's Open Graph.]

By R. Michelle Green

I wanted a new purse recently, and did some online searches. Days later, I’m still getting ads for purses even though my searches have moved on to nature documentaries. Why is it still focused on purses? Is my laptop trying to encourage me to be more fashion forward? Or is it behavioral advertising, in the context of the Social Graph?

What is the Social Graph you ask? According to Brad Fitzpatrick, the founder of Live Journal, it’s “the global mapping of everybody and how they’re related.” I probably had Gmail open while I searched for purses (no doubt using Google Shopping). Now, I’m looking for nature documentaries on Amazon.com, where I do not have a public profile.

I hate filling out profiles, and more often seek another solution if a site requires me to create an account. If only we didn’t have to build a new profile every time we found the latest cool thing online, or didn’t have to bother with pesky account IDs and passwords…

Thank goodness Facebook.com CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg is looking out for us.

He feels specialized networks like Pandora or Yelp should be open and cross-pollinating, and not just available by password. New Facebook tools will make the social graph more open to everyone – hence his April 21, 2010 announcement of Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol. He’s letting FB business partners tell signed-in users which of their friends are using their sites and what they liked there.

For example, when I visited The Huffington Post, it told me about the activities of several friends:

Open Graph example at the Huffington Post. Click to view larger image.

At first glance, this may feel a little like magic. Why is Facebook telling me about a great Szechuan restaurant a block away? Why now? How does it know I’m hungry? I’ve signed in to Facebook at noon using my GPS-enabled mobile device; the restaurant is using Open Graph to reflect its location; and I clicked “like” on a Szechuan recipe at Epicurious last week.

This is the vision: if your Facebook general information will inform your experience at a site, Facebook will share it without extra work from you, even the very first time you visit.

Could be cool right? Your profile can be a living document now, automatically updated whenever you click on a Facebook ‘like’ button anywhere else on the Web. Instead of a news feed visible only to users in some finite window of time, your recommendation will become visible to your friends when it’s timely for them: when they visit the site. This is “just-in-time” inventory for the digital age. If you’re tired of managing more and more complex ‘strong’ passwords at multiple sites, let Facebook open the world’s accounts to you with Facebook Connect –- and open you to those accounts with Open Graph.

A big downside is managing all those privacy rubrics. For the good of the business model, everything should be public by default.

Today, I was given a forced choice at Facebook log-in: delete my connections with my alma mater and my high school, or check them as public information. I found I could work my way back through account settings and reset that to the more nuanced “Only Friends;” at least I can right now.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests FB settings alone will not be sufficient to the task without the onerous action of opting out of Instant Personalization at each relevant site. (As of this writing, only Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft’s docs.com use FB’s Instant Personalization. As for social plug-ins like the ‘like’ button, 50,000 web sites were on-board within a week of the announcement. Many of Facebook's 75 launch partners are visible at the end of this video.) A writer on a recent Chowhound thread is struggling even to ascertain if the privacy settings she set at FB are in play.

And that does not constrain FB from sending you info about your friends’ less private settings. Do I need to know that a work acquaintance read an article about Rush Limbaugh when I visit CNN.com? In an unrelated article about Amazon and sales tax, a law professor went a step further. Voicing concerns over the amassing of large amounts of personal data in the hands of private aggregators, Joel Reidenberg said, “The bleed from privately held data to state surveillance can happen very quickly.”

Just how helpful do we need Facebook to be anyway?

So what’s a non-geek FB user to do? First stay informed! Understand what these tools mean, and if the new world works for you, surf on. If you disagree with Zuckerberg that we always wanted to share everything, we just didn’t have the tools, what can you do? Use any available tools to manage your privacy settings; opt out of Instant Personalization; ask your friends to do the same; and don’t stay signed in to accounts like FB when you surf.

Higher energy alternatives: speak up! Take advantage of opportunities, whether it’s the exercise of your voice, your vote or your veto. Sign up for the FB governance page and tell them what you think of these tools. Read the Terms of Service when you use sites. Vote with your feet if the terms don’t meet your approval. You can’t stop the things that make Open Graph possible IMHO, but you could be instrumental in making associated processes and tools more transparent. If you’re online, you’re exposed, but you can at least understand when you’re aiding and abetting the marketing beast.

Instant Personalization at Web sites feels to me like when you meet someone for the first time at a networking event, and they ask about your kids by name and school: slightly creepifying, as Mal Reynolds would say. We all Google each other, but wise and gentle folk serve up that information discreetly and diffidently, if at all. As behavioral advertising and social graph programming evolve, such tools will likely become smarter, more discreet, less visible and less creepy.

I hope.

Stay tuned.

© 2010. R. Michelle Green. Reprinted with permission.


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Charles Jeter

Thanks Michelle,

I got the same message and disappointingly I didn't have the time to work my way back and find the 'friends-only' option so I banished myself from all of my organizations rather than make them public.

Being from a white collar crime investigative background, I know what a danger it is to have too much information made public.

Social engineering isn't just for criminals. On the bright side, if I did get back into investigation, the right database membership will bring me 90% of what I need to get my foot in the door with witnesses, suspects, and most of all, friends of suspects.

Sad, really.

R. Michelle Green

You're right Charles.... We've come a long way from Paul Newman in The Verdict having to steal a phone bill to locate someone!.... Michelle

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