Monday, October 03, 2011

Why I May Quit Facebook (and Why They Don't - and Shouldn't - Care)

The envelope of the future?
I had a sinking feeling.  As executor of my mom's estate, I had just compiled a list of all sorts of things on Google Docs and intended to share them with my siblings. Instead, I accidentally hit the "Public" button. This would not have been such a big deal a few months ago until Google+ was launched. But now things are different. My fear was that I had just published these private items on my Google+ public feed.

Fortunately, I noticed right away, and changed my settings.  But how often am I in a hurry and don't realize what I have done?  It used to be that the most you could do was accidentally email things to a few extra people in your address book.  It is now getting easier and easier to inadvertently "email" something to everyone in the world.

It would not have been a disaster if my mom's estate details (including some correspondence with my siblings) had been made public.  There were no trade secrets involved.  But it would have been an inadvertent breach of trust on my part vis a vis my relatives.  And the things in there are really no one's business but ours.

Many things in our lives are no one's business but our own.  All but the most extreme proponents of social media would say the same.  We have all read about the folks who put a live web cam in their house to let the world see their every movement.  But those are in the minority.  The rest of us like some degree of privacy.

Don't get us wrong: we do like the way that social media enable us to share and stay in touch with various concentric circles of friends and acquaintances.  We just don't want to have to worry that every time we go on line that we are inadvertently sharing with more than the people we want to.  We don't want to develop a twitch when it comes to communicating, fearful that we have spoken too loud and others have overheard our private conversations.

The other night at dinner, I was extolling the virtues of Spotify to my friend C.  I wanted him to listen to some music I had discovered.  Instead, I got a blast from him: "I tried to sign up for Spotify, but they would only let me do so if I signed up via Facebook, so I told them to go to hell."  Sure that he was wrong, I told him to stop being such a Luddite and go back and read the fine print to find where he could sign up by email.  I heard nothing, so the next day I went and looked at the site myself.  Low and behold, he was right.  Spotify had made some deal with Facebook whereby all new users are now required to sign up via Facebook.  (I got in under the old regime.)

Spotify got some blow back for its new policy, and in response made clear that new users could opt out of sharing all their music automatically via Facebook.  But this was the exception (the opt-out) vs the rule (the default).  And more and more this requirement to actively opt out  has been adopted by Facebook and others.

And you know what?  From a business point of view, what Spotify and Facebook are doing makes sense because of the power of network mathematics.  Most social media sites make money from the number of items viewed.  The new default of open sharing increases geometrically the number of items shared and the number of people who view them.  Someone will soon (if they have not already) do some little back of the envelope calculations on this, but I would bet that the new open sharing policy increases the number of item views on each platform by a factor of 100 or more.  Not all of those views are high quality views, but you get the idea.  This increase in views for the system as a whole far outweighs the loss to the system if a few people drop out.

The bottom line is that, unless people leave Facebook and Spotify in droves, it makes sense for these companies to stick to their guns.  Sure, there will be people like my friend C who never signs up in the first place, and possibly me, who decides to delete my account because I don't want to develop a "twitch." But  the loss from us will be minor, comparatively speaking.  The more I think about it, the more I want to become an investor in Facebook and Spotify, and the less I want to be a user.