Facebook follies

Google has a few ways for entrepreneurs – especially those involved in web-based companies – to stay on top of the hot internet searches in their industry or location, including its Insights for Search services and its Google Trends site.

Over the last week or so, avid trend watchers in the tech community have noticed the emergence of a very curious spike in searches about social networking Facebook.

Specifically, there has been a sharp spike in the number of Google searchers wanting to know how to delete their Facebook account.

The spike in demand for information about how to sever your Facebook ties is seen as a reaction to recent changes to Facebook’s privacy settings, which essentially mean that the site’s default privacy settings allow a great deal of your personal Facebook information to be available for public consumption and available for third parties (that is, advertisers and Facebook application managers) to access.

Now, we should point out that Facebook users can manage all their privacy settings – there are dozens of them – to set who, what, how and when other users can see their data.

However, many users argue that Facebook doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining to users how to manage their privacy settings, and have argued that Facebook’s 6,000-word privacy policy is simply too long to be workable.

Whatever the case, it appears Facebook’s privacy problems have moved beyond angry protests from tech experts and civil libertarians and into the mainstream.

To me, this says a few things about the future of social media.

Firstly, predictions that Facebook might have built an almost unassailable positron in social media (sort of like Google’s position in the search market) may have been a bit hasty.

With over 400 million users and counting, it will remain the dominant force in this space for many years to come, but it might just be possible that this dissatisfaction among users could open the door to another player down the track. I could be wrong of course, but the speed at which MySpace tanked suggests that when the crowd moves, it can really move very quickly.

Secondly, this could be a signal that people are waking up to the idea that personal information shared via social networking – birth date, occupation, relationship details, lists of friends, family and colleagues and, of course, photos – does need to be controlled.

I’m betting many entrepreneurs with Facebook accounts – either personal accounts or accounts for their business – haven’t even looked at their privacy settings and, like me, probably don’t really know where to find them (it’s under the “Account” tab in the top right of the page, I’ve just been told).

But first stop and think about the information that might be around on the site about you, including personal data, inane comments about your favourite TV show and the huge hangover you’ve got from the weekend, and the photos both on your account and on the accounts of friends and colleagues.

Then stop and think about who is potentially looking at that information, including employees, fellow directors, customers, suppliers, contacts, competitors, recruiters and even insurance companies.

All of them will look at your data very differently.

For example, take that photo of you that George from accounts put up after last year’s Christmas party, with your name “tagged” for all to see. You know, it’s the one taken late in the night, when you were clowning around with a lampshade on your head, beer in hand and a big red wine stain on your white shirt.

On the positive side, your friends will get a laugh, your employees will look at it and think you really are one of the team and your kids will look at the picture and write it off as mum or dad’s usual embarrassing Facebook appearances.

On the negative side, your directors will look at it and wonder if you’re getting close to your use-by date, your customers are wondering if you can be trusted to deliver that project on time and your competitors are emailing it around the industry within hours.

Facebook can be a bit of a laugh, but damage to your personal reputation isn’t. Time to review those privacy settings ASAP.

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