04 October 2007

Beyond Bizlex: Facebook's Worst Nightmare, All Over Again

The column I drafted in response to my conversation with Facebook appears in next week's Business Lexington.

First, I should disclose something that I put in the original draft but didn't make the final edition - as the readers of this blog know, I'm married to Dr. Leigh Ann Simmons. She's quoted in the piece. She's been instrumental in pointing to the peer-reviewed research on the issues of breastfeeding promotion and anorexia sites.

Facebook is the kind of communications tool that people point to when they want to show how communications technology can bring out the very best in all of us. That's one of the reasons I'm still so disappointed in the obvious disconnect they've continued to essentially ignore. The company that facilitates so many discussions simply refuses to meaningfully engage in the discussion about itself.

I'll let the moms express their righteous outrage at Facebook for their obvious mistake on breastfeeding pictures - they do it better than I could. I'll let the science on pro-anorexia sites speak for itself. The issue for communications professionals, quite simply, is this: Facebook has failed to apply common-sense context to its policies on content. And when mistakes are pointed out, Facebook basically refuses to acknowledge them.

Of course it's difficult to develop policies that restrict or allow content. Of course you won't always have the resources to catch everything right away. But it's impossible to write perfect rules for this. You have to be able to step back, be an adult, and apply context and common sense to the rules you write. Facebook actually has really well thought-out terms of service - they just obviously misapplied those terms in the situations brought to their attention. At least some, and possibly all, of the breastfeeding pictures they banned clearly don't violate their terms of service. The pro-anorexia groups on their network are clearly harmful, as the science suggests - not simply "controversial." This violates the terms of service.

And then, after I submit the column, I see this. I should never - NEVER - read that the Attorney General of the State of New York informed Facebook of a sexual predator on its network and Facebook failed to deal with it immediately. When I read that, and place this news in the context of their previous decisions, the claim that Facebook takes this "very seriously" rings absolutely hollow. This simply reinforces the idea that the company doesn't fix its mistakes. Now the Attorney General of New Jersey is issuing subpoenas to Facebook as well about sexual predators. I understand it's hard to keep track of 35 million people, but sadly, Facebook's track record now means they won't get the benefit of the doubt from me.

And I won't deny my personal opinions on this. It's stupid, spiteful, and harmful to send the message Facebook sent when it banned those breastfeeding pictures. It's inexcusable to help sick girls share tips on what narcotics to take to get skinnier. It's ridiculous to restrict pictures of male cartoon characters with nipples because some idiot "tagged" them as "obscene." And when the New York Attorney General's office tells you there's a sexual predator on your network, DAMMIT, you drop what you're doing, reschedule the meeting with the VC firm, and you deal with it.

It's long past time for Facebook to reach out to its members and to the media to have a meaningful discussion about all of this. It's long past time for them to do the things that crisis communications experts agree are the right things to do here - acknowledge the mistakes, apologize, implement a remedy, and explain how the mistakes will never happen again.

Seriously, guys - stop acting like a bunch of frat boys who use shame as a weapon against young women, and MAN UP. Or at least speak up and tell me why I'm wrong in a meaningful way - this does not mean re-stating your terms of service, because you only show everyone how you didn't follow your own rules. Because if you don't start acting like adults, state Attorneys General and eventually members of Congress will start making more of your decisions for you.

As I climb down from my soapbox, I just want to say I'm really pleased that leaders in this field have also spoken out on this, such as Susan Getgood on her blog, and Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson on their podcast (show notes here). The personal messages of support I've received from colleagues at other firms have been thoughtful and gratifying.


Anonymous said...

Here, here! Worth saying and well said. Thanks.

PunditMom said...

It's great that you're writing about this, as well. For better or worse, I think it helps when it's not just women bringing attention to issues like this.

Julie Marsh said...

What PunditMom said. It's all well and good for women to lead publicity efforts on issues like these, but it carries a bigger wallop when men take a leadership role.

Anonymous said...

I applaud David for taking a stand on this, and supporting the women who first raised the issue so well. And I agree that Facebook is making a serious business mis-step here.

But (steps on soapbox) I am also disturbed at the idea that somehow a man's voice will carry more weight than a woman's. As a lifelong feminist I want to see women's leadership acknowledged, especially about issues for which we can rightfully claim "ownership."

Fundamentally that is the far more severe societal problem of which the Facebook mess is simply a symptom. (steps off)

David said...

Thanks Susan. FWIW, I don't see myself as a champion here. You're absolutley right that I'm joining a discussion that others have led long before I ever came around.

And while I really appreciate that people want to give me attaboy's, the real leaders are the women who have spoken up on this for years.

Can a man more effectively call out other men and tell them to start acting more responsibly? I have no clue. But I'm not trying to be the "credible third party" here. I'm just looking at stuff in front of me and voicing my opinion: REAL men treat women with more RESPECT than Facebook has lately.

Which is, I think, what all the women have been saying as well.

Lawyer Mama said...

Oh. my. god.

I'm standing up to cheer hear, David. The more people (male or female) who are discussing the Facebook fiasco and its inconsistent (and somewhat dangerous) policies, the better.