Facebook's foolish foes

I remember, distinctly, when former Business 2.0 editor Josh Quittner's love affair with Facebook began this spring. He couldn't stop talking about it, and I could hardly avoid hearing about it, since my office was next door to his. With all the zeal of a late convert, Quittner evangelized Facebook for most of this year — and now, feeling betrayed by Facebook's Beacon ads, he has attacked them with all the betrayed fury of a new apostate. Facebook is dead — to him, at any rate. Quittner's fickle rage perfectly captures the Silicon Valley hype cycle, and the press's complicity in it. Having built up Facebook, Quittner and his fellow reporters must, inevitably tear it down. But in this latest episode, it's Facebook's critics, not Facebook, who have jumped the shark.

The protests over Beacon, a program which reports users' activities on other websites to their friends on Facebook, have been compared to last year's fuss over news feed. In fact, there's no comparison: Actual complaints from users about Beacon have been far, far fewer. The introduction of a news feed was a radical change to Facebook's behavior. Beacon, which merely extends Facebook's reporting of activity on its site to others, does not change users' experience of the site in a dramatic way.

Facebook has been its own worst enemy — doing far more damage than any underemployed blogger could. The company made just about every conceivable mistake in the marketing of Beacon — from overhyping it to Madison Avenue, misleading advertisers about how optional it was for users, and failing to consider the consequences of reporting users' purchases to friends and family over the holiday shopping season.

Someone should take the fall for this. Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, in charge of marketing, has likened the introduction of Beacon to an experiment. "We want people to try it, to see it in action," he told the New York Times. "Our point of view is, let's give people the ability to sample it."

A sensible laboratory trial. But let's run a different experiment. Why did Beacon draw such a critical reaction from the press, while the news feed, a year ago, a much larger user revolt, make less of a splash? We can control for several variables.

Mark Zuckerberg, then as now, was CEO. PR head Brandee Barker, excoriated by Quittner and blogger Robert Scoble for the company's media relations, joined Facebook shortly before the news feed fuss. (It turns out that Scoble, who accused Barker of being unresponsive, never even even bothered to ask for an interview.) Owen Van Natta, then COO, now the company's chief revenue officer, was equally involved in both incidents, from what we hear.

The new variable in the Beacon trial is Palihapitiya himself, who joined the company just a few months ago after a long career at AOL. He's clearly a talented executive, trained in the new school of marketing through scientific thinking and quantitative analysis. Try something, and if it fails, discard it and move on. Perhaps that's what Zuckerberg should do with Palihapitiya.