Successful businesses sometimes lose sight of their original mission and alienate their customers by changing priorities. The mammoth social networking service Facebook may be about to make that mistake.
Facebook can learn a lesson from Netflix, the digital entertainment enterprise that angered hundreds of thousands of its subscribers by splitting off its popular DVD-by-mail operation from its newer online-streaming service. The aim was to save money and boost profits — mailing DVDs is more costly than providing the same programming online — but Netflix CEO Reed Hastings ended up reversing the company’s ill-advised, or at least premature, decision.
Facebook could be heading down a similar path. CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in September that the company was going to restructure its online “profile” page so members’ photos and message postings are organized by month and year, going back to when each member joined Facebook.
Most of that information is available to users of the traditional Facebook profile page, but it’s often cumbersome to access. The reorganized system has been dubbed “Timeline,” and Zuckerberg said its aim is to enable users to “tell the whole story of your life on a single page.”
Late last year, word began trickling out that switching to Timeline wasn’t going to be optional. Facebook now says all of its 800 million members worldwide will be put on the new system, whether they want to or not.
That has prompted some grumbling. Customers who are comfortable with one system often dislike getting used to another system.
There are other concerns as well, among them the prospect of highly personal information suddenly becoming available for what Facebook has termed “frictionless sharing.” One critic even suggested that Timeline will become “a treat for stalkers.”
Recognizing the potential for abuse, Facebook has built into Timeline procedures for users to purge their accounts of such things as rants about ex-spouses or bosses and compromising photos from long-forgotten beer parties. But once a user is notified they’re being switched to Timeline, they’ll have only seven days in which to clean up or protect portions of their profiles from unwanted viewing. That could amount to as much as eight years of daily postings.
What’s behind the change? Zuckerberg claims the company wants to provide better service for its customers. But there’s another reason: Facebook makes its money — $3.8 billion last year, projected to increase to $5 billion in 2013 — by allowing companies to post advertising on its website.
While making it easier for Facebook users to access their personal information, Timeline also will make it easier for advertisers to learn users’ preferences and personal habits and then tailor their advertising accordingly. There are already 60 new digital applications, or “apps,” available for Timeline that will enable members to share instantly things such as what they are reading, what music they are listening to, or how many miles they are biking or running.
In a Jan. 24 article in USA Today, Consumer Watchdog spokesman John Simpson criticized the way Facebook is handling the switch to Timeline. Including online giant Google in his comments, he said such companies are showing “a complete disregard for their users’ interests and concerns” and taking “an uncommonly arrogant approach not usually seen in business, where the companies believe they can do whatever they want with our data, whenever and however they want to do it.”
Some Facebook members are upset about the change. An unscientific survey of more than 4,000 users conducted by Sophos, a digital security company, showed 51 percent were “worried” about the change, and only 8 percent said they like it.
But a Netflix-like surge of protests seems unlikely. There are plenty of options for people seeking digital entertainment, but Facebook clearly owns the current social networking market.
So those who are made uncomfortable by Timeline most likely will have to swallow their concern or distaste and clean up their profiles — or give up their social cyber-sharing fixes.