You Might Even Thank Facebook for Automatically Sharing Your Data with Other Sites

Facebook recently announced that they will give up personally identifiable information to certain “approved” sites that use Facebook Connect. Within the tech industry, this is seen as a scary invasion of privacy, but I am not sure if it is really a very big deal. This isn’t a very big step forward from a marketing perspective, and in the end, most users will be better off.

As Jason Kincaid at TechCrunch reported yesterday, Facebook is going to start allowing “certain” websites to pull “limited” information about users via Facebook Connect, even if you are not signed in to the site with Facebook Connect, and even if you don’t have a profile on the site you are visiting.

This will allow sites to know some information (exactly what is unknown at this point) about who you are, where you are, and possibly who your network is. There are two reasons why I don’t think this is as “downright creepy” as Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb thinks.

First, people actually aren’t that worried about personally identifiable information. This was a significant point in danah boyd’s keynote address at SXSW – boyd made the distinction between personally identifiable information (“PII”), and “PEI” – potentially embarrassing information. It’s the later that people actually care about – saving face is life, and (as that popular series of 90s sports t-shirts said) the rest is just details.

So, how does Facebook sharing personal information to trusted external sites disclose potentially embarrassing or compromising data? I am going to venture out and say that it won’t. Or, at least, the risk is very, very low. There are several apparent reasons that there is limited risk, but a huge upside, for the user:

  • This functionality is not going to be rolled out to porn sites. Facebook is not going to open a firehose of personal information to scammy, sleazy sites. The amount of data they open up, and who they open it to, will be very limited (at least in this first iteration).
  • This functionality will only be available to big players, with big dollars. These will be sites that have already built strong communities, like The Huffington Post (1M+ comments per month). Therefore, the rules of engagement on these “partner” sites are already established – the community is self-policing, there is strong moderation, and the editorial voice is understood by the audience. Therefore these communities naturally lend themselves to strong connections already.
  • We will get better targeted content. Finding relevant content is the single biggest challenge on the web now (and it’s getting worse). The vast majority of users will now automatically start to receive more targeted content. This is a huge win for the user, and one that many people will consider a completely worthwhile tradeoff, even when made fully aware of the pros and cons.
  • People want to be found. I will not go so far as to say that society is becoming less private – I don’t think that’s true. But, people make comments and participate in conversations because they have something to say. In addition, our ideas are the easiest thing for us to give away, and we want to get credit for them in order to build social capital. This functionality will make that process easier, which is another win for the user.

Second, this development is evolutionary – not revolutionary. It may be a big step for Facebook, but a small change in the overall context of identity and targeting online. The current generation of ad targeting already does most of this. At any given time, you have hundreds or even thousands of cookies on your computer that target you. While these cookies may not have your name, they can link back your IP address to your location, interests, web history, search history, site history, and much more.

Quantcast compares you against everyone else, and creates “lookalikes” that have the same behavior as you, then sells those lookalike profiles to the sites that you visit for ad targeting. Mediaplex already cookies you once you have seen an ad, then retargets you with different CTAs within the same campaign. And in recent conversations with Traffic Marketplace, I learned that they are working on a product that crosses the app-identification barrier. Soon, in-app advertising will be able to sync identities with online behavior, and bridge mobile identity with web identity.

Yes, there is a difference in what Facebook is doing – it’s putting a name to all of those data points. It may be putting some real-world relationship data points into the mix also. But, others are not far behind – your cell phone number is even more identifying than your name (even for me – I have seen one other Jamie Beckland online, though the spelling was different).

I am not belittling privacy concerns – we should all have extremely granular controls, our information should be portable, and we should maintain rights over how the information is used. But, the most basic building block of economics is the concept of a tradeoff – you give up something in order to get something. I bet that for the vast majority, what they are giving up in this instance – a limited amount of personal information to a very small number of high-trust sites – is much less than what they are getting in return – much more relevant, personal, and meaning-making experiences.