For a month, Facebook didn’t do or say anything about it. Then it offered up a few non-apologies, made some superficial fixes, and moved on.
Is Facebook completely tone deaf? Does it not understand PR?
Actually, I would argue that Facebook is smart, and it has some perspective—and the bad press is already dying down.
For Facebook, as for the vast majority of companies, the set of people who discuss it and watch it closely—the people responsible for the current “buzz”—is very different from the set of people who are customers or potential customers. Facebook has hundreds of millions of users worldwide already. To be very generous, there are perhaps a few million people who read, write and talk about what technology companies are up to.
Facebook wasn’t ignoring a PR crisis; there never really was one, because the vast majority of its customers never knew anything was happening.
When everyone around you is saying something, it’s very hard not to conclude that people in general are saying it. But the priorities and concerns of the people in your echo chamber are often quite different from those of your customers as a whole.
In Facebook’s case, the major complaint levelled against the company has been that it made sharing more information an opt-out decision, rather than an opt-in. Users had the option not to share any new information, but it involved a little effort.
It’s a basic and widely-established fact about human beings that whether a choice is framed as an opt-in or an opt-out has a pronounced impact on what they choose. Even with very important life choices— whether and how much to save for retirement, whether to become an organ donor—many, many people will end up going with the default. Simply changing what happens by default, without changing people’s options, can have a major impact on what most people choose.
To privacy advocates, that’s a compelling reason to make sharing new information opt-in. For Facebook, which stands to gain from people sharing more, it’s a great reason to make it opt-out.
But here’s the important thing, from the business standpoint: the majority of Facebook’s users couldn’t care less.
The difference between an opt-in process and an opt-out process is abstract and boring. When someone finds out that he is sharing more information than he thought, he might be angry, and the fact that he could have set things up differently may not entirely mollify him.
But on the whole, it’s all a big yawn.
That’s very difficult to keep in mind when the entire industry is in an uproar, but Facebook has done a great job playing to its customers, rather than to the angry mob around it. And it will undoubtedly profit from it.