In defense of Facebook

It’s not as if Facebook needs my defense; it has Microsoft’s millions. And I certainly can be accused of Facebook fervency in my writing. But I think some are too quick to jump on Facebook’s back precisely because it is so big and successful.

But I see something bigger happening here: I think Facebook is redefining how to make a mistake.

When they announced the newsfeed, they took their users by surprise and pissed them off. But after pulling back and explaining, it went ahead and, as it turns out, they were right: The newsfeed is the heart of Facebook and is, I’ve been arguing, a new interface for news elsewhere.

When they announced the ad program, they again took their users by surprise and didn’t include enough privacy controls for the users. But after pulling back and adding those controls, I’ll say again that I think they’re onto something. See what Matt McAlister says responding to my musings about airlines capturing the wisdom of their crowds the last few days:

Carrying the theme to retail markets, you can imagine that you will walk into H&M and discover that one of your first-degree contacts recently bought the same shirt you were about to purchase. You buy a different one instead. Or people who usually buy the same hair conditioner as you at the Walgreen’s you’re in now are switching to a different hair conditioner this month. Though this wouldn’t help someone like me who has no hair to condition.

That’s what Facebook’s ad strategy will work to deliver: social shopping. And I want that. Just as I’m interested in what apps friends install I’m interested in what products they buy, so long as they are willing to tell me, and also what they think of them.

Now comes the Scoble Plaxo kerfuffle. Facebook did right: It protected my email from going to the dreaded Plaxo. It cut off Scoble for violating the TOS. But it then reinstated Scoble before he could make a video whining about them. Plenty of folks say they did right.

But now to the bigger point: how Facebook makes mistakes. See Rick Segal defending Zuckerberg on this point:

The larger issue and concern for me is the piling on from Bloggers and questionable Political Action Groups when it comes to pounding on Mark Zukerberg. I turn fifty in 22 days so I can clearly say Mark is a kid. He is going to make lots of mistakes and he will continue to learn and grow. Focusing in on him and how he personally handed it, dissecting his blog posts, etc, is just silly. Many of the blog posts, especially from the “A” list types, have that twinge of arrogance and smugness which is normally seen when the business of business turns into the blood sport of watching somebody fail.

We need to use care in beating up Zuckerberg and Facebook in general because we want these folks to push the limits of finding new ideas and trying to make sense out of all the data flowing everywhere. Try it and get some reactions, adjust, find the happy center, rinse and repeat. That’s what Facebook should be doing and all the users and give feedback about the business. If they go off sides, it will get corrected, it always does. If they do really bad things, people vote with the mouse clicks. Just ask MySpace or AOL’s GeoCities. People vote and have no problem moving.

Right. We can’t expect to see new companies innovating and taking chances without the chance that they make mistakes. Of course, they’ll make mistakes. The question is what they do about them. Zuckerberg and Facebook have done a good job listening to their public and correcting their mistakes and keeping the nerve to innovate and experiment. And they do it in the open.

Too often, companies and brands — especially media brands, I’ll add — try to act as if they’re perfect and they don’t make mistakes and they don’t want to risk their reputations by making any. This makes them timid and that kills innovation.

I’d rather have a company that tries to innovate and makes mistakes, so long as they listen and correct them. That, I believe, is the new way for companies to act. It works only if you are in a conversation with your customers and listen to them. And so far, Facebook has done that. So I agree with Segal. And I say, don’t be so quick to jump on or write off Zuckerberg and company. They’ve done a lot right so far. Could they make the Big Mistake that messes it all up? Sure. That’s what Plaxo did with me, spamming me to the point that I will never trust that brand or company again.

But so far, Facebook has learned from its mistakes. That’s the most I can ask from them.