Nice Job, Facebook

Photo by World Economic Forum, via flickrIt looks like Facebook has its groove back. Only two weeks ago, Facebook almost ruined its own good name by unilaterally changing, then revoking, a new Terms of Use.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg (photo at right) last week announced a remarkable new plan to let Facebook’s own community determine company policy. Some might say it’s lunacy, but I think it’s the only thing he could have done.

The basics are this:

  • Facebook is creating a new set of principles, and a separate new set of rights and responsibilities.
  • For one month, Facebook will invite its community to comment. This ends on March 29. The comments will be made public and summarized, too.
  • Facebook will then revise the documents based on the feedback, then open them to a vote. The vote will be public, and if 30% of the users vote, it’s binding.
  • It will create a user council of members who provide the moist insightful comments, and will invite reporters, bloggers, analysts and other pundits to be part of a first alert network for news from Facebook.

(Brian Solis does a terrific job poking through the details in his customary lucid and concise fashion.)

What’s so good about this? Facebook listened.

What worried me most about the Terms of Use kerfuffle was that Facebook seemed so tone deaf to its own special place in the world. It was behaving like an old world company, while pretending to be new and cool.

So now, with its change in direction, Facebook is practicing what it preaches in two important areas:

  • Transparency. Users’ comments are public, and Facebook says explicitly what it will and won’t do.
  • The community rules: The community determines the brand, and it will determine the company’s policy too.

People can and will disagree about some of the specific proposed principles, rights and responsibilities. That’s fine. At least now, the final product will be up to the community, not to a faceless group of manager types.

Not everyone would have the guts to admit their mistake so graciously, and make such a dramatic about-face. We could all learn from what Facebook did.


Facebook is Tone Deaf – and Why Associations Should Care

Photo by Ian Wilson via FlickrOnce again, Facebook stepped in it.

Ten days after surreptitiously claiming unlimited rights to use its customers’ content forever, Facebook earned the wrath of its community, and reversed course. It’s left now to lick its wounds – and it has to opportunity to change. But will it?

Facebook thrives only because its members share their lives with generosity and candor. Some of it is intensely personal – sometimes, it is TMI. But Facebook effectively said, “It’s our property, not yours. Deal with it.”

This reminds me of a great scene in the recent movie, “The Namesake.” At one point, the main character’s new wife blurts out to his friends that he changed his name years previously, and she reveals his given name. The main character was livid, saying she had no right to divulge that information – it was his prerogative alone.

Facebook’s move felt like a similar violation. Within days, many of my friends were thinking of quitting Facebook. Had it gone on much longer, I have no doubt that they would have.

In today’s world, customers are in charge – not the business. Facebook pays lip service to this principle, but ignored it – for the second time in just 15 months. In late 2007, Facebook tried to introduce Beacon, an advertising program where private user information would have been shared with advertisers. After a big protest, Facebook backed off.

Now, we have a repeat offense, which raises doubts about whether Facebook truly understands what happened.

We could speculate about what motivated Facebook – to improve its valuation, to get better ad rates, whatever. Most of it’s probably accurate. But none of it has anything to do with the customers, and everything to do with the company’s self-interest. CEO Mark Zuckerman tried to spin it differently, but seems tone deaf to what happened.

Facebook’s community now writes the rules of the company. If Facebook continues to resist, the community will go elsewhere, and Facebook will die.

What does this have to do with associations? Everything.

Many of us operate in the historic command-and-control model. Staff traditionally controls the connections, the knowledge, and the flow of information. Many of us struggle with implementing social media because it gives the keys of the enterprise back to the members – who, remember, created the association in the first place. It’s a big change. Try as we might to resist this evolutionary change, we cannot.

Our members rule. Staff is there for the ride.

140 Characters = Poetry

Blaise Pascal

The philosopher Blaise Pascal supposedly said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but didn’t have the time.”

I thought of this today when writing a Facebook update about our family’s home teardown and reconstruction adventure.

I’m really excited about our new house. The old house is getting knocked down next week. We spent four hours there this morning. We threw out, donated, or stored the stuff that remained. And in the midst of the excitement, some melancholy slipped in the back door.

Hey, I never adored the house – hence the teardown. But it’s where my two baby girls turned into wonderful young women. It’s where we had great times with our family dog Matisse, who died recently at age 16. The back yard was his kingdom, and mine.

The old house saw nine Thanksgivings, nine Christmases, nine Easters, two First Communions, nine summers of balmy nights with the crickets keeping time. Great whiffle ball tournaments. Bats swoop around at dusk, at about 30 feet altitude.

Paradise, in a suburban lot measuring 177 feet by 85 feet.

So how to convey these thoughts in Facebook’s 160 characters, or even Twitter’s 140?*

When I wrote for TV newscasts back in the Ice Age, I learned how to say a lot in a 10- or 15-second script. I learned one trick from my late father, a Shakespeare teacher. He always read his writing aloud. I did the same when I went to TV, and it helped. Bad writing hurts the ears. I keep it up today. (It may not always work, but it helps.)

I’m re-reading one of Jakob Nielsen’s usability books. He talks about how web users don’t read online; they scan. Cynthia D’Amour understands this. Her blogs are brief and rich and fun.

Facebook and Twitter impose this discipline. I swear, sometimes, it’s poetry.**

Listen to a conversation next time. Notice how short the sentences are. Notice how they don’t use clauses. Notice how powerful the verbs are. Notice how complex the communication is.

Now, write that way, especially if you’re writing for the web.

If you have the time.

* here’s how I did it:Frank spent the day storing stuff from the old house. Mix of excitement (new house) and melancholy (lots of good stuff happened there).”

** Like this tweet from David Gammel today: Went for a run then had two helpings of turkey and stuffing. And a piece of cake. Oops.