Facebook has endured another storm of PR hell in recent weeks, as mainstream media and the blogosphere pounds away at its “open disdain” for privacy. CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm-room IMs haven’t helped. And the recent storm is only the latest in a long line of such storms, dating back to the site’s very beginnings.And the concern and howls are understandable: Facebook often shares way more information with the world than its users know, expect, or want. It consistently approaches innovation and privacy changes with a do-it-first-and-then-see-what-happens attitude, which enrages those who feel it should ask permission first. And it has often done a bad job of explaining to users what it is doing, why, and when, as well as what control users have over this.
But Facebook’s aggressiveness on the privacy front is a big reason for the site’s success. The company will survive the latest PR flap, just as it has survived all the other PR flaps. And unless the latest blow-up scares it into changing its ways (let’s hope not), Facebook will continuing growing like a weed until it is by far the most popular web site in the world (and note what “most popular” means: It means that, despite the howling of a tiny minority, more people choose to spend more time on Facebook than any other site in the world).
From a business perspective, in other words, Facebook’s approach to innovation is smart. It’s not always popular, but it works. And if Facebook wants to maintain its competitive edge, it will do what it has to do to smooth over the latest blow-up, and then go forth with the same approach and attitude it has had all along.
Step back and think about what Facebook is doing here. It is pioneering an entirely new kind of service, one that most of its users have never seen before, one with no established practices or rules. It is innovating in an area–the fine line between public and private–that has always freaked people out. It is allowing people to communicate and share information in ways they never have before. It is making decisions that affect hundreds of millions of people. And it is trying to stay a step ahead of competitors that would like nothing better than to see it get scared and conservative and thus leave itself open to getting knocked off.
Given this reality, Facebook could take one of two approaches:
- It could always ask permission first — methodically testing changes, asking users what they want, and not doing anything users haven’t explicitly approved of in advance.
- It could keep doing what it has always done: Make changes first and then see what happens.
The first approach would unquestionably produce smoother peaks and valleys for Facebook’s PR. It would also likely be vastly worse for the company’s business.
As loud as the recent screams have been, they will likely be forgotten in a month. If they aren’t forgotten, Facebook can just roll back some of the changes that freak people out the most, just as it did a few years ago with Beacon, but keep the rest.
If Facebook were to radically change its approach to innovation, meanwhile, seeking prior approval for every change it makes, its innovation would slow to a crawl. It would also sacrifice the opportunity to roll out innovations that initially freak people out but that soon become wildly popular (News Feed). Given that Facebook’s whole product is walking this ever-flammable line between public and private, Facebook’s users won’t likely know what they’re cool with until they see it in action. So asking them ahead of time would just lead to a lot of “no’s,” even with respect to innovations that people would eventually want.
Facebook’s approach to innovation is aggressive, in other words, but it’s the smart one. It’s the same one Microsoft had in the two decades in which it dominated computing and built one of the world’s most powerful and valuable businesses (yet another similarity between Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates). Facebook’s approach will continue to occasionally trigger outbursts of public anger and fear, but this alone isn’t a good reason to change it.
As Facebook gets bigger and more powerful, it certainly needs to be more careful about the changes it makes and the way it communicates them. But a radical shift in Facebook’s approach to innovation could deprive users of services that they will eventually love. It could create an opening for Facebook’s competitors. Most importantly, it could also rob the company of its innovative and pioneering spirit–a devastating blow that could eventually leave Facebook in the same position as, say, Yahoo (or, worse, MySpace).
One of Mark Zuckerberg’s most valuable attributes as a CEO is his willingness to take heat and stay the course. So far, the course Mark has set has been so wildly successful that, in only 6 years, he has built the second most popular web site in the world. He, and Facebook, would be crazy to change this.