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February 23, 2009

Maybe Facebook Should Be Renamed About-Faceboo

Oh, boy, has it been another fun week at Facebook. In case you never read back to the beginning of it all, earlier this month the company quietly changed its terms of service, to say that Facebook users were now granting “Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense)” to do whatever it wanted with anything they posted. (The story broke over the weekend because, thought it may take awhile, there are actually people who read terms of service.)

By early this morning, Facebook had, not surprisingly, reconsidered — returning, temporarily, to its old TOS while it works on new ones. (Can’t wait to see what the new ones are.). But, gee, it’s pretty hard to figure out what the point of the whole go-around was in the first place. Before Facebook made this latest about-face (strangely reminiscent of other Facebook about-faces I could mention), Mark Zuckerberg was saying that, despite the new TOS, there was actually no change to the company ethos “that people own their information and control who they share it with … ” If Facebook was really planning on changing its TOS so that it had the rights to user content, what to make of that statement?

It’s almost as though Facebook got hold of the standard freelance writer contract and slipped it into the TOS just to see if anyone would notice.

As all of us know by now, someone did. I saw one estimate that traffic to Consumerist’s original post breaking the story reached 300,000, and another that that one post resulted in more than 750 news stories around the globe. This reminds me a bit of David Ogilvy, who once said, “The consumer is not a moron, she’s your wife.” I’d like to think that if D.O. were alive today he might add, “And she’s got a megaphone.”

You could wonder if, ironically enough, Facebook understands the power of its user base. But after this, the Beacon controversy of 2007 and the News Feed controversy of 2006, it’s something worth pondering. I feel for Facebook execs in that users seem to blame the service if they stub their toes on a table leg on their way to logging on, but at least three such about-faces isn’t just a trend, it’s a degree of tone-deafness. Maybe this latest controversy happened because the voices of users are becoming white noise.

Fortunately, Zuckerberg says that as the company works to alter its TOS in coming weeks, “users will have a lot of input in crafting these terms.” That’s great, but it looks as though users are already giving their input.

I don’t know if I’ve really broken any ground with this column, which is not something I care to admit. It’s just that the change in terms of service and resulting backlash all seems so obvious, even without hindsight. There isn’t anything here that any of us, or Facebook, shouldn’t already have known.

Catharine P. Taylor has been covering digital media and advertising for almost 15 years. She currently writes daily about advertising on her blog, Adverganza.com. You can reach her via email at cathyptaylor@gmail.com, follow her on Twitter at cpealet, or friend her on Facebook at Catharine P. Taylor.

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