How Facebook Saved Face

An online mutiny this past week brought Facebook to its knees and gave a scary first look at how tenuous the world of cyberspace can be. Take notes, MySpace. Your parent company News Corp. paid over $600 million for the chance to be the social network and it can all go away at the click of a mouse.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized in a letter posted to members by saying "We really messed this one up." How?

On Tuesday, September 5, Facebook implemented RSS feeds. As one student of mine said, "we like to spy on people but this is too much". The RSS feeds alerted friends to changes in members' profiles -- a radical departure. Facebook got it wrong when it thought its social community would like such a notification system when they were used to making changes and having the changes seen in time -- "the old fashioned way" -- when visitors stumbled across them. Facebook execs were caught off guard.

Two days later Facebook admitted its mistake. Does this scare you? It scares me to think of how quickly the social networking masses can revolt. But Facebook did a good job mopping up the damage. And much can be gleaned from this close-call:
  • Admit a mistake quickly and emphatically as Dale Carnegie used to advise.
  • Never take your audience for granted. P&G and other product companies spend huge amounts of money on market research -- and even then -- they have lots of product failures. Facebook didn't test. Didn't ask. It's a formula for disaster in social networking.
  • Young people want control of their social structure. They don't appreciate "big brother" type behavior.
  • Social networking is a slippery slope. Lose the goodwill of your community and you lose everything. Social networking could be some big money some day so you do the math.
Facebook may never be the same after this rude awakening, but for now it appears to have nipped the rebellion in the bud. The lesson that shouldn't be lost on anyone is many Internet start ups seemingly can't be stopped once the viral spread of the venture gets around. Same is true for every misstep -- and the consequences next time could be socially and financially disastrous.