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.

  • I do somewhat agree, I think it is important for people to understand that Facebook is a new company and yes it made a mistake and things need to be corrected, but it doesn’t mean the entire company is horrible. There’s still something unique brewing up here.

  • AnnB

    This seems like the latest Facebook advertising screw-up

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  • I enjoy Facebook. It really has a way of growing on you.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when/if companies embrace Google’s OpenSocial – and if a collective group will penetrate Facebook’s armor.

  • In my eyes, it’s not how you mess up, but how you fix it.

    It’s tough to reach people, and companies spend a lot of money trying to reach us. When they screw up, we all want to hear what they have to say. More often than not, Facebook has gone on to say the right thing (to their benefit).

    It’s not a very coherent strategy, but it seems to be working :)

  • Sandra Azzollini

    I agree with you, Jeff. In order to be innovative, companies need the freedom to make some mistakes, but they must also be responsible to fix them quickly.

  • Yes, and fix them quickly, they did.

  • I don’t understand you, Jeff – you endlessly slag on AOL and other Web 1.0 wannabe portals for being “walled gardens”, but when Scoble gets banned (albeit temporarily) for daring to scrape his own contact data out of his Facebook account you give FB two enthusiastic thumbs up. Facebook is looking more and more like a Web 2.0 version of AOL. Resisting Data Portability is pretty much the polar opposite of everything you claim to be in favor of when it comes to social networking, so why does the almighty Facebook get a pass in this regard?

  • It’s what he did with it, Jersey. He went around the rules that do exist at FB– and upon which many decide to join — and handed my data without my permission — and without apology yet — to the dreaded and much-hated Plaxo. that’s different from sending me a Christmas card.

  • Jeff:

    Yes, it was a violation of Facebook’s uber-restrictive ToS, and Plaxo isn’t exactly Mother Teresa, but doesn’t it disturb you that Facebook only wants its “openness” to flow in one direction (i.e., into Facebook)? FB will bend over backwards to help me scrape out all of my contact information from my Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, and countless other accounts, but they get mighty unhelpful when you want to get all of that social networky goodness back out again from theirs.

    Facebook reminds me of the old Sands casino in Atlantic City – they had this moving walkway that whisked you away from the Boardwalk and onto their gaming floor, but as many a hapless tourist learned the hard way, it was a one-way trip (God, I hated that place!)…

    I might also remind you that what you refer to as “your” data is actually what you’ve already chosen to share on your FB profile. What exactly is the difference between running a script like Plaxo does and keying all of those email addresses into a contact manager by hand? I get your email address either way.

  • Hi Jeff:

    It seems like Facebook (and I’m fan as well) is simply being guided by a maxim employed for ages by savvy teenagers, maverick military men and a fair number of intrepid reporters. Called by some “Stuart’s Law of Retroaction,” this principle states:

    “It is easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.” (Also stated, maybe a bit more succinctly–and accurately?– as “It is easier to GET forgiveness than permission.”


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  • I mostly agree with what you’re saying Jeff, but also think that Josh Klein has an improtant point – Facebook isn’t redefining how to make a mistake, but merely how to recognise, react and respond when a mistake is made.

    Communicating why the mistakes were made, how they are going to fix them, and, as you said, responding quickly to those mistakes, is as important as learning from those mistakes.

  • Jersey Exile is right FB are the ultimate walled garden.

    I agree with Jeff re the effectiveness of Facebooks just do it/fix it approach. But despite their success I doubt they are (and hope they are not) the are the way of the future (unless they change their approach).

    They try to keep everything on their platform and hopefully the combined expertise of the rest of us will be able to create something more compelling. I believe the future will be separate, loosely coupled, linked web apps. I am working on one and trying to make it as open as I can:

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  • 3rd party apps linked into Facebook through the iframe option are now running very slow.