Never far from the news, Facebook has graced these pages many times in the last two weeks. Though the social-networking giant’s poorly-communicated change to email addresses received top billing, other rumors may be more important. For example: GM is considering a return to advertising on Facebook — curious in light of automaker’s IPO-damaging departure less than two months ago.
What could motivate GM’s return? According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook may simply make more performance data available. However, I suspect it may have something to do with what I consider to be the biggest Facebook story from last week: the discovery of an alleged “Want” button on the horizon.
Facebook’s upcoming Want button may be the company’s most important launch since it introduced the now-ubiquitous Like button two years ago. Want could become as big a part of the Web as Like has grown to be. This will be great for Facebook and its advertisers, but, given Facebook’s checkered past, could be a concern to those that use the service every day.
How Want will work
News of the “Want” button first surfaced when Inside Facebook found references to it added to Facebook’s markup language. The button will work on Open Graph objects called “Products.”
Presumably, clicking “Want” will indicate you intend to buy something, or at least wish you could. Facebook will collect and collate this data in the same way it does with Like data, and then make the results available to third parties (read: advertisers). Companies will then be able to target brand messages based on Want preferences.
Facebook introduced many of us to the concept of a social graph: the network of personal connections that makes up each of our social networks. The social graph maps connections between people. It describes who we are — how we are linked to and grouped with one another.
A Want button makes it clear that Facebook’s vision does not stop at social. As Want and Like choices accumulate, Facebook will generate a preference graph for each user. It contains information on who I am, and what I care about. Where the social graph maps connections between people, the preference graph maps connections between individuals and products.
Given our Facebook use habits, the preference graph will greatly enhance advertisers’ abilities to target using the platform.
A revolution in the making
The “Want” button could become ubiquitous very quickly.
Facebook’s reach is almost ridiculous. The average 6.35 hours per month each of us spends on Facebook.com are only the start. Facebook’s Like buttons appear on virtually every notable website – Digital Trends included. Facebook also powers commenting systems all over the Web, and sites and services — Spotify, for example — authenticate users through Facebook Connect. A Want button will be adopted by those already using Like, and also may spread rapidly to other sites due to the promise of the preference graph.
For other Web companies, such a massive roll-out would be a problem. Facebook, however, with its history of stability and massive, talented engineering team, is one of the few that can make it happen. In light of its underwhelming recent IPO, it has more incentive to do so than ever before.
Want could be good
Every time we click Want, we’ll be giving Facebook even more information about ourselves. But what will Facebook do with that data?
Facebook serves two important groups: the 950+ million people who use its service, and the hordes of advertisers marketing to those users. Only one of these groups pays Facebook money. Following its IPO, Facebook may be feeling more pressure to justify its insane valuations. Facebook must make more than the pitiful 6.2 cents for each hour each user spends on the site (business-focused LinkedIn makes $1.30). To do so, Facebook must offer advertisers a more compelling product.
Want could be the beginnings of this product. With Want, advertisers will not only “target ads for Facebook users based on the users’ desires for similar products” (an idea proposed in Bea’s column on this topic), they will also have a valuable new input for models predicting purchase behavior. More information for advertisers means more money for Facebook.
This could even be good for Facebook’s users. Advertising is a reality on the Web. If it’s going to be present, it might as well be relevant. If a product I want to buy goes on sale, I want to know about it. If I’ve used Want to indicate purchase intent, Facebook could let me know about that sale. I get to buy the product at a discount, the advertiser gets a sale, and Facebook gets a conversion, making its ad space more valuable. When Want is used ethically, everybody wins. Ask yourself, though: Do you really trust Facebook?
Potential for abuse
All new technologies have growing pains, but Facebook has had far more than its fair share. This isn’t bad luck. Facebook has a history of forcing changes on its users without permission or announcement. Facebook’s policy has always been “ask forgiveness rather than permission.” The recent email address controversy proves that this is as true now as it was during the famous Facebook Privacy Fiasco of late-2009. Facebook’s pursuit of its vision has been aggressive and, potentially, less than scrupulous, in a way that has given many pause.
Two compounding factors may make Facebook act even more aggressively with Want. Wall Street just beat up Facebook (metaphorically) in a way that it has never experienced before. Its mismanaged IPO has the company facing criticism where once there was only hype. This experience should have the company, and those that work for it, angrier and hungrier than they were before. This alone may encourage Facebook to make bolder moves.
Want’s focus on products makes it more troubling. Want feels like it is more for advertisers than for users. Addressing the criticisms of detractors like GM may require Facebook to share more data (and more of our personal data) with advertisers. With Want, Facebook may be opting on the side of its advertisers, not its users, when deciding the future of its platform.
Regardless of motive, Facebook will continue to make aggressive choices because it already knows what I’m coming to realize: Facebook is one of the more addictive things in our digital reality. Paraphrasing Ze Frank, we return to Facebook over and over again, “hitting it like a crack pipe.” I even did so while writing this column (though I’m trying to get better). Facebook doesn’t have to be good to its users, because we are all so hopelessly hooked on what it provides.
So, anticipating Want, consider: How much of your personal information do you trust to Facebook? What do you really know about Facebook’s plans for that data? How hooked are you on their service? Given your answers, should you be concerned?