Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Facebook and the importance of respecting social contracts

Posted in in the News, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on May 16, 2010

Facebook, like most online social networking sites started out and initially operated with an opt-in policy for when and how personal member information would be shared. This meant that individual members had control of the personal information they provided to the site and that they got to make a positive, informed decision to share before any of their information would show in their user profile. This included user options for managing what of this information they selected to show at all, or would only show when viewed by people they were Facebook friends with. This definitely included opt-in on the part of profile owners for sharing personal information with third party commercial vendors. Then Facebook changed the rules. The value of all this personal information they have in their servers proved too much of a temptation to them and they switched to opt-out where the default is a loss of privacy and a loss of personal control over member provided personal information – and especially to those third party commercial enterprises as they pay for this trove of potential business intelligence wealth.

A lot has been written about this. The New York Times and a variety of other news sources have posted information on this and on how difficult it is to work your way through the more than 50 settings and 170 options that you have to select from in order to regain control of your personal information in deciding who gets access to it (e.g. see Bilton, N. “Price of Facebook Privacy? Start Clicking.” The New York Times, Thursday, May 13, 2010, page B8). has posted information and a petition (this link still live as of May 16, 2010) to try and pressure Facebook into relenting.

If you simply cancel your membership and close out your user profile, Facebook will still have your personal information in its servers. Will they continue to market and sell your information even then? The problem Facebook now faces and that all of its roughly 400 million members have to deal with is one of uncertainty stemming from a catastrophic loss of any real credibility. And this can all perhaps best be considered as a fundamental breaking of a social contract that was drawn up between Facebook and each of its many, many members as they entered into agreement with the company and began posting that personal information to their web site.

I suspect that the senior management of Facebook is unfamiliar with the concept of the social contract so along with offering a link (above) to a Wikipedia piece on the concept I will share some thoughts into this here as well. Online social networks did not exist when Jean-Jacques Rousseau first wrote and published his The Social Contract in 1762, but the basic concept of the social contract as an organizing principle of fair and equitable behavior stands at the foundation of any sustainable social network or organization of any type – online or not. The leadership of any such network needs to be up-front and consistent in its policy and practices in facilitating member participation and in preserving confidentiality and control over member information that is shared throughout the system.

When Facebook suddenly shifted away from a member controlling opt-in for managing access to their personal information these web site owners broke a very fundamental social contract by suddenly denying members this control. If they had started out with an opt-out policy where the default was to share everything and where Facebook claimed the right to sell user information provided, then there would be no problem as anyone signing up and entering personal information would know this before supplying any of their sensitive, personal information. But when this is done to members and to hundreds of millions of them but only after they have shared this information into company servers that constitutes a fundamental fraud on the public and on public trust.

Google in its public policy writes of doing no evil. Facebook should take a page from their playbook and stop doing evil.

I am seriously considering closing down my Facebook profile and my account with that organization and just using LinkedIn ( Earlier in this posting I raised the question as to whether this would stop Facebook from selling my personal information as a commercial product and I have to add that this was not at all a rhetorical question. I really don’t know the answer and it is the type of question that every Facebook member should be asking around now – and demanding answers to. Facebook has broken some very fundamental social contracts and they have certainly put themselves in a position where it would be difficult to argue they are not doing evil and to a lot of people. They have also sown a great deal of doubt as to their reliability, intentions and consistency in follow-through. And they have clearly come to see their members and the member-provided data that they hold as their personal property to do with as they see fit – regardless of the fact that this data was not provided to them under those terms.

This is a fundamental issue that any online organization should think through in setting and following its policies. I am sure I will be posting on this again in follow-up to this News story.

6 Responses

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  1. Social Computing Platforms said, on May 16, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    […] Continued here: Facebook and the importance of respecting social contracts « Platt … […]

  2. […] the original post: Facebook and the importance of respecting social contracts « Platt … social-networking, strategy-and, Uncategorized, Web […]

  3. […] more here: Facebook and the importance of respecting social contracts « Platt … If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it! Tagged with: 2-0-marketing […]

  4. […] by Timothy Platt on May 21, 2010 A few days ago I wrote and posted a note to this blog on Facebook and the Importance of Respecting Social Contracts, and I said at the end of that posting that this was a topic I was going to follow through on. I […]

  5. […] One comment that I have received through an online group in response to my first of these postings: Facebook and the Importance of Respecting Social Contracts has prompted me to think about the specific issues here with a particular focus. I want to share […]

  6. […] Making change in the customer experience good, and how well-intended change can be anything but Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 30, 2010 Change in product or service can be good. It can create new markets and open up new business possibilities, and it can move a business from just being a member of the herd to holding a position of marketplace leadership. And it can do all of this by creating value that the customer and potential customer will want. At the same time, change can turn away customers and it can erode customer loyalty. It can be disastrous and the history of business is as richly punctuated by big name failures stemming from inopportune change as it is by successes coming from effective, market creating change. New Coke comes to mind as an immediate example from the negative side of this, though for a more recent and online example I could also cite Facebook’s recent foray into change in its user profile settings (see Facebook and the Importance of Respecting Social Contracts.) […]

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