This is the second of Andrew Gossen's two guest posts about Facebook's Open Graph initiative. Andrew is Senior Director of Social Media Strategy at Cornell University and co-chair of the Task Force on Social Media for CASE's Commission on Alumni Relations.
My previous posting addressed the potential of Facebook's Open Graph Protocol to enhance your institutional website, adding new social and dynamic dimensions as well as the possibility of a personalized browsing experience. It sounds great.
But what about the privacy issue?
Ahh, the Facebook privacy issue. Over the past week, it has been unavoidable. Several observers have maintained an excellent, broader conversation about the evolution of privacy on Facebook and the higher-level philosophical debate. Andrew Careaga highlighted a number of the most influential recent blog postings on the subject. Michael Stoner provided a nice overview of some of the issues, and there are interesting visualizations of the evolution and complexity of privacy on Facebook. All of these are worthy of careful reading and reflection.
But back to the Open Graph. If you deploy parts of the Open Graph toolkit, are you putting your alumni in jeopardy? Consider the two main tools:
I'm not particularly worried about these. If people don't want to click on "like" or "recommend" buttons, they don't have to. If their browser isn't logged in to Facebook, or if they don't have a Facebook account, they'll only see very generic social information (click images to enlarge):
The counterargument is that users may not realize that clicking the links is a public action, and that their activity may be shared with third parties. Some IT security companies are developing tools that allow organizations to control or monitor social plugin functionality in the name of data and network security. This concern should be balanced, however, against early evidence that use of the social plugins does, in fact, generate additional referral traffic to websites.
- Open Graph
Here, things get more complicated. Some interesting criticism argues that neither Facebook nor its Open Graph launch partners have implemented their own protocol very well. At this point, we may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what a website fully personalized with these tools might look like.
- To start with, people can opt out as soon as they land on a web page for the first time:
- The "Learn More" link provides more detail, although the amount of detail depends on the site in question – Pandora, for instance, uses a generic Facebook explanation while Yelp offers more specific information. A more specific option definitely would play better to alumni.
- Every time you return to a page that is personalized through Facebook, you are reminded of that and given options:
- You can also disable much of this functionality through Facebook's privacy settings.
There is no doubt that Facebook has defaulted users' privacy settings to public sharing in a way that will make the Open Graph ecosystem work more smoothly, but you can also make the claim that privacy control tools are readily available. The presence of tools does not guarantee that they'll be used, however – recent research by Consumer Reports indicates that 23% of Facebook users are not aware of, or do not use, any privacy settings to control access to their information.
At this point, I'd be reluctant to implement the Open Graph API too aggressively. Concern about privacy is one element of this wariness, but I also don't yet feel like I have a solid grasp of what the end product would look like. I'd prefer to see whether some of the more dire loss-of-privacy scenarios come to pass, as well as examine some fully-implemented examples of the Open Graph API first. Ironically, increasing levels of concern about privacy on Facebook may provide advancement offices with an opportunity to provide a valuable service to alumni by using social media channels to apprise them of privacy best practices, as well as providing this training in face-to-face or virtual formats. I'll be doing a Social Media 101 webinar with Cornell class volunteers, and I'll certainly devote a portion of it to privacy concerns.
Second, what about the institutional perspective? Should we be comfortable with Facebook gathering data on what Facebook users are doing on our web pages and sharing that information with third parties? That's a cost/benefit question whose answer may vary from institution to institution, and from various vantage points within each institution. Do the additional functionality and the potential for increased connectivity outweigh the risks? Does anyone have an accurate sense of the real risk at this point? There are far more questions than answers, but the questions are worth asking. It seems shortsighted to discard a tool as potentially powerful as the Open Graph API out of hand, especially since, as noted before, we're yet not really sure what a full implementation looks like.
And remember, in a Web 2.0 world, letting institutional considerations determine too much about how you engage your alumni may result in them leaving you behind.
The important decision about the Open Graph protocol isn't really in your hands; it's in the hands of your alumni. If they continue to flock to Facebook and they like the additional functionality, you need to be there with them and use the tools they use themselves. Or you need to be comfortable with the consequences of not doing so. If they depart for greener pastures en masse, it's not worth your time to stay, anyway.
Fortunately, social media is a great tool for finding out what your alumni are thinking. Ask their opinion. Listen. Engage. You'll make a better decision on the Open Graph initiative, and you'll advance your relationship with your alumni on the social web.