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You hurt all of us today, Facebook

Posted by: Hugh Tallents on May 12, 2011

If you believe, as I do, that the web’s role now has moved beyond accessing information and connecting people and is now about making information itself more intelligent, then Facebook’s actions to launch a secret smear campaign against Google have done us all a major disservice.

Sure, Facebook’s move to hire Burson-Marsteller to pitch bloggers on stories going after Google’s invasion of customers privacy make it look desperate, but more importantly it speaks negatively to its character as a brand – a very big deal. After all, Facebook’s entire brand is built on being a gatekeeper and protection of all we, as users, hold dear: family, reputation, everyone we know and everyone that knows about us. This means that any shady move it makes is a reflection on its brand. And that’s where brand loyalty comes into play – and where Facebook’s trouble are likely to continue to grow. Indeed, if early backlash to today’s “Brand Tag” feature is any indication, the battle ahead is only going to grow tougher, with each of Facebook’s efforts to quickly improve features, before another, better competitor swoops in.

Right now, the internet is going through a very intentional migration, but the speed and scope of its utility is still based on one simple fact – the more quality information that goes into it, the more we are all able to get out of it. Recommendations become smarter, maps get more accurate, image libraries grow more complete. The whole functionality and utility improves and that benefits us all. From a business side, companies rely on this information to make better business decisions, to give us more of what we want, and less of what we don’t. Information fuels innovation, research and development, and capitalization of new projects – all the good things that lead to growth and prosperity.

To that end, today’s incident is not about whether people will cancel their Facebook accounts in droves or whether people will rush indignantly to change their privacy settings. What it is about is the impact it is likely to have on our behavior. My fear is that the next time someone can either opt in to let a “responsible” company access its data or opt out because of privacy fears, they’ll think back to Facebook’s shady PR dealings and will be all the more likely to opt out, due to lack of trust in the brand. Ultimately, that behavioral shift means the web is likely to be less intelligent, less useful, and less connected. And that impacts all of us.

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