The Tyranny of the Foil Hatted

Anybody got a pen? Someone should mark this in the calendar as the day I agreed with Michael Arrington. Though he approaches it with his usual deft touch (‘Mice nuts,’ anyone?), he hits the nail squarely on the head regarding online privacy.

A quick re-cap of how we got here: you may remember Facebook changing its privacy settings a few weeks back. Tech geeks were horrified and began deleting their accounts, while your non-techie friends likely posted something in all caps in their status, then moved on. Over the past weekend, Arrington had a quickie Q&A with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the ensuing headline – Privacy is Dead! – raised everyone’s hackles all over again. This morning, Arrington called us all Luddites for caring. And a good morning to *you* too!

I met with a company a few days ago that deals in data and one of the execs said something I had to scribble down immediately. “Why should your privacy fetish impinge on my need for data usefulness? There is a very real danger here of the tyranny of the minority.” Privacy fetish – I love it.

Arrington raises a very salient point in his post: if you’re a participant in the 21st-century modern world, your privacy has already been compromised past the point of hope. Unless you’re living off the grid in a mud hut – in which case you’re not reading this – ‘they’ know everything about you. So any personal campaigns you’re waging to protect your Facebook quiz results are, well, something of a fetish. Further, as the data exec points out, some very real benefits lie in the exploitation of said data. All the screaming we’re doing about making Google work better and ending the glut of information that’s thrown at us? Not going to be solved without using our personal data.

Now let me beat you to the punch: won’t someone please think of the children? Yes, there is a separate raft of concerns when it comes to kids online. But if you’re under any illusions that ‘they’ know less about your kids simply because they’re small – well you’re wrong about that too.

I realize that it’s out of character for me to say, essentially, “They’ve already won. Just give in.” But I’m afraid that’s the case here. While I’m not advocating you start taking naked pictures of yourself and using them as profile pics, I am saying that if you want to participate in technology as it stands today, you have to let go of a few illusions. And key among them is that you’re currently in control of your online data.

Facebook Jumps the Shark

The hullaballoo over the Facebook redesign has reached Threat Level Red; in its latest issue, Entertainment Weekly likens it to New Coke and Betamax. Ouch. When a mainstream entertainment magazine is taking jabs at your user interface, you can be sure of two things: 1) nothing you do escapes notice and 2) you screwed up.

The official poll on Facebook has now reached 1.2 million thumbs down. The comments generally fall into three main categories. There’s the “If I wanted to be on Twitter, I’d sign up for Twitter” contingent, the “Where the hell did everything go?” camp, and those that think, “It’s too much information I don’t need and not enough that I do.”  But perhaps it’s summed up best by  Tom Henderson of ExtremeLabs, who simply said, “No soul.”

Whatever your individual nits, the consensus is that Facebook is turning into something the majority is not entirely happy with. And in the democratized world of the Internet these days, the majority expects to be heard.  The question is whether, and how, Facebook will respond. They’ve made mistakes before and backtracked somewhat (see Beacon). But they’ve also faced a loud outcry before and ignored it (see News Feed). Perhaps the more appropriate question is this: if they ignore us, will users retaliate and leave? Or are we too deeply entrenched in the site to walk away?

Robert Scoble is of the opinion that Facebook should turn a deaf ear to its hapless users, who wouldn’t know a good business model if it bit them in the rump. I’m paraphrasing a bit, so will let Robert sum it up for you:

Zuckerberg is not listening to you because you don’t get how Facebook is going to make billions.

I’d wager every last cent to my name that 99.9% of my friends on Facebook don’t care one whit about Facebook’s business model. They’re consumers – they use a service because it benefits them in some way. Do you use Crest because you like its business strategy? Do you watch NBC because it has great ad sales?  Are you on Twitter because you like its business model? (Impossible – they don’t have one. Cue rimshot.) The answer to these questions is of course no. Brand loyalty is established because consumers develop an affinity for the user interface: I like the way Crest tastes, I like NBC’s programming, etc. While there are cases in which business strategy comes into play in buying decisions, those are generally from a negative angle, i.e, I don’t like Wal-Mart’s business strategy, so I don’t shop there.

If users leave Facebook, it will be for one reason only: they’re no longer enjoying the user experience. “Here’s how we’ll look in five years” has zero interest to mainstream consumers. So my advice to Mark Zuckerberg – because I know you’re not hearing enough – is to ignore Robert Scoble. And if Valleywag tipsters are to be believed, ignore your own advice. When over one million of your users are complaining, they may be on to something. Companies who listen to their customers are rewarded handsomely in the long run. Companies who don’t, lose them.

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Becoming the Story: A Cautionary Tale

Earlier today, my business partner Mike Sigal and I had a robust discussion about Carla’s post on the Sarah Lacy kerfuffle at SXSW on Sunday. Neither defending nor attacking Lacy, Mike asked whether The Guidewire did a service to the community by entering the debate. “How,” he asked, “are we additive to the debate?”

It’s a fair question and I do think Carla made a key point:

It seems that the audience was misread at several junctures. In the end though, the only question that needs to be answered is whether Lacy did her job as a reporter and interviewer.

Whether you like or dislike Lacy’s style, whether you appreciate her body of work, whether you were in the room or not, one thing has become clear: Lacy became the story.

In fact, I’ve been hard pressed to find much coverage at all of comments made by Mark Zuckerberg during the hour-long keynote Q&A, so I went to YouTube to find video of the interview. Lacy talked about her visit to facebook, her previous discussions with Zuckerberg, her forthcoming book, her interview techniques, her indignation. . . herself.

In short, Lacy made the interview as much about her as it was about Zuckerberg. That, my friends, is an amateur mistake that a journalist of her position should not make.

But, oddly, it’s almost understandable. Continue reading

Mob Rule

I know, I know: you likely can’t take one more analysis of the Mark Zuckerberg/Sarah Lacy debacle. But as tempers have calmed and more thoughtful analysis beyond “she sucked” emerges, I must add my two cents. As someone who was sitting smack in the middle of the audience and experienced the vibe, I disagree with those who are now calling it a witch hunt and an overreaction by an unsympathetic audience. The packed-to-the-gills ballroom sat on their hands and kept their mouth shut for the majority of the Q&A. But as time ticked by and Lacy continued to cut off his answers, plug her upcoming book, and relate personal stories that weren’t of interest to the crowd (his profuse sweating in their first interview, for example), the murmuring and discomfort became palpable. Frankly, I was embarrassed for her. It was like watching a tanking Saturday Night Live sketch that has gone on far too long.

From what I know of Lacy, she’s a sharp reporter – BusinessWeek isn’t in the habit of hiring dimbullbs. But she was off her game in this interview and didn’t ask the questions this developer audience wanted to hear. The attendees unhappy with the interview weren’t in “the back of the room,” as TechCrunch surmises. They were everywhere and were of all shapes and sizes. Three people on all sides of me – none of which were developers – got up and left before the kerfuffle kicked in, uncomfortable and fed up with a highly anticipated keynote that went south.

We can all agree that Zuckerberg is a tough interview. But the audience wasn’t displeased with the answers he was giving; they were displeased with Lacy’s unprofessional and weirdly personal interview style. Jeff Jarvis hit the nail on the head; she should’ve researched her audience more. And Brian Solis (linked above) makes a good point that SXSW organizers should take part of the blame. It seems that the audience was misread at several junctures. In the end though, the only question that needs to be answered is whether Lacy did her job as a reporter and interviewer. Turning an entire ballroom of excited attendees into a torch-wielding mob is an answer in itself.