20 Oct 2010 7:00 am   //   Filed under: Media, Technology

Facebook and freedom

The other day at work, someone spotted a customer complaint on a social network that I don’t use. I got started setting up a profile so I could respond to the customer and try to put things right. (This is a big part of what marketers do these days, in case you were wondering.) It felt like a million steps. The web site demanded a profile picture, and insisted that it be a photo of an actual person (not a logo), or else your messages would be deleted. I also noticed this site already had two entries for our company, under two slightly different names, both with an incorrect address and phone number. It soon became clear I would need to set up 3 profiles, one for each incorrect version of the company, and one for myself (since you can’t send messages from a company to an individual, which was all I really wanted to do in the first place).

I might have been better off just letting it go, but I wanted to do the right thing. Unfortunately, it became a huge frustration rather than a positive communications experience. Basically, I was letting a company I heretofore never cared about suddenly push me around, demanding my picture and phone number and a big chunk of my time. (You may have already guessed that the site I’m talking about is Yelp.) How annoying!

How many different websites do you use to share your profile, make connections, and respond to people who want to communicate on that platform? Probably at least two, maybe six, maybe ten. It’s a lot of time. Which of these efforts will pay off, and which are pointless work?

We’re all developing profile fatigue. The more common profile fatigue becomes, the harder it is to start a new web business that requires people to set up a login. For years, tech companies have been searching for an answer to this problem. The road to now is littered with burnt-out hulks of multi-site identity systems that didn’t work. (When was the last time you updated your Windows Live profile?)

But for the first time, a universal login seems within reach. The smart money is on Facebook. Almost every new identity-based site being developed today is designed to mesh with Facebook’s infrastructure. You can tap Facebook’s “open graph” for identification the way you tap the power company for energy.

Consider the implications. In a world where our Facebook profiles are displayed everywhere, including in connection with our jobs, we will all be far more careful about what we share. I’d eliminate anything vaguely controversial or mildly rude, for fear of presenting an unwelcoming face to customers.

That means if I wanted to write a post criticizing Christine O’Donnell for not knowing the First Amendment, I might hold my tongue, to keep from souring future encounters with people who support her. I wouldn’t complain about Yelp’s website, in case one day in the future I want to do business with that brand. I wouldn’t write about how some people in my neighborhood get on my nerves, because people in the neighborhood might connect it to my job. To be as professional as possible, I would make sure everything I post on Facebook is as inoffensive as a pair of brown loafers.

I don’t worry much about privacy. But I worry deeply about free expression. When Facebook becomes our public face, there will be intense pressure to be extremely dull. To me, that’s scarier than any privacy breach. Will the social future make us boring?