Demographics Could Lose Facebook Users

In the continuing row over Facebook’s privacy, or lack thereof, a number of interesting perspectives have been offered about shifting demographics and shifting notions of online privacy.

The first perspective is from Wired.com author, Fred Vogelstein. He interviewed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg and/or senior management at least 12 times over the past three years.

I believe they all completely understood the company’s new privacy settings would be controversial. Indeed, I think they intended them to be controversial.

Facebook’s “privacy firestorms” happen around every 18 months, Vogelstein said. From its inception in 2004, it has always pushed the envelope. It started by collecting real names, addresses and phone numbers. In 2006, its now-mundane newsfeed caused controversy. Then we got Beacon, which had to be scrapped. Vogelstein, however, says elements of it live on. He compares Zuckerberg to a successful entrepreneur who refuses to give people what they say they want. Instead he gives them something they don”t realise they need. As for the apologies Zuckerberg periodically issues after these controversies, Vogelstein said:

He is not expressing regret as much as annoyance at his inability to get beyond his users’ idiocy.

However, he acknowledges that Facebook’s push to redefine online privacy is “risky” and could result in “mass defections” to social sites that promise to be more careful with user data.

Blogging on the Harvard Business Review site, Bruce Nussbaum thinks that point has been reached. Tracking the development (literally) of Facebook’s users, Nussbaum said a good many started out as teenagers that wanted a place to meet kids their own age “without adult supervision.” Now they are older, wiser and looking for work. But, as Nussbaum says, young adults:

Watched, horrified, as corporations went on their Facebook pages to check them out. What was once a private, gated community of trusted friends became an increasingly open, public commons of curious strangers.

This, in my opinion, is the nub of the issue. Many non-tech types I know are expressing serious doubts about Facebook. One in his 20s was already telling me a year ago how he went through his pages and scrubbed everything. However, he was still worried about being tagged in photos on his (real-life) friends’ pages.

All this time, Facebook is phenomenally successful. Revenues are estimated at $1.2 billion this year. It claims around 500 million active users. But against all this, privacy issues flare up from time to time.

Now, obviously, I am online doing this blog, Twitter and LinkedIn. I do it because I like writing and digital media. And, to be honest, I hope it will help my career. I have no objections telling people what my email address is (johnmuldoon AT yahoo DOT com). I don’t like having my picture taken, but had one taken and stuck it online anyway.

But I’m not a kid any more. I’m not here to mess with my friends or have my picture taken in bars. What’s funny while you still have three years of college ahead of you could be a headache that follows you around the world after graduation. People are finding that out. Perhaps Facebook is relying on a new cohort to replace young adults. But if they warn their younger brothers and sisters off, Facebook could find itself losing out.

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