Facebook au lait

February 5, 2012 in Data,Internet,Technology

The NYT's Bits section, which up until now I thought was doing a wonderful job of evolving technology reporting to a higher, "post-blog" level, has left me stunned with a bizarre editorial in which the author requests compensation for his contribution to Facebook's success.

Is it just a tongue-in-cheek opinion designed to attract eyeballs and -- yes -- goad bloggers into responding? Probably. But it inadvertently highlights how seriously people are taking the alien business of social networking -- so seriously, in fact, that as usual they appear unable to understand it at all.

Take, for example, this opinion:

“The idea that a business benefits from social interaction is not so strange or new. A lot of cafes and small restaurants will let people hang out because they attract other people,” said Yannis M. Ioannides, a professor of economics at Tufts University. “What is unusual and new is that Facebook takes access to information about these people to make its business more powerful.” He added: “The proprietor of a cafe doesn’t use personal information about me and my friends to make money.”

Really? Cafes don't use your personal information to make money? Find me a cafe that doesn't tailor its menu, prices, inventory, background music, specials, wifi, tables arrangement, etc. etc. based on the interests of its customers. Tell me that Starbucks has never once run a focus group (yes, Internet, there actually was A/B testing before there were computers). My preferred cafes in New York are those where the people behind the counter greet me by name and have my order ready before I have a chance to ask for it.

The difference between Facebook and your average cafe isn't that the experience (and more importantly, the key inventory) is tailored to the customer; it's that Facebook's inventory is virtual (unlimited) and their profit margins are insane. The fact that user-created content draws people in is no different than a cafe hanging paintings by local artists, or people being attracted to busy establishments. The social aspect, as the professor does point out, is not new. And therefore (among other reasons), the op-ed's entire point -- that because the author contributed to the social aspect, he deserves compensation -- is absolutely ridiculous.

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