What Could Facebook's Beacon Have Been (and Still Be)?

Published on December 18, 2007
by Kara Swisher

Just because it is the holiday season and BoomTown is feeling all holly and jolly and merry, it doesn’t mean we’re going to back down on the fiasco that was, is and will always be Facebook’s Beacon.


In fact, we’re hopping mad all over again after a talk we had last week with a very smart exec at a company that Facebook does a lot of business with, who posited the right way the social-networking phenomenon could have rolled out the now radioactive ad system.

It did not have to be that way, as the exec I was talking to noted, if Facebook had first launched the Beacon service–which can track your purchases on some external sites and send the information back to your Facebook profile’s news feed–as a noncommercial tool for users, focusing on things they had posted on a range of external Web sites that they actually might like being broadcast back to friends at Facebook.

Specifically, that could mean popular sharing sites like Flickr, YouTube, Yelp, Craigslist and Twitter, or any place where people like to and–more importantly–intend to share. Finding an easy way to let friends know what you are posting on the Web, as anyone knows, is still not very easy at all to do.

Thus, Facebook would have provided a valuable service if it had just tweaked Beacon to be actually helpful, rather than actually stalkerish.

So why did Facebook focus the service on ads first?

Well, to my mind, there were 15 billion reasons.

In other words, Facebook had to and has to desperately find some sort of magic advertising pill to sell to somehow backfill its spectacularly impossible $15 billion valuation, a financing whose pressure to perform is clearly at the rotten core of the Beacon program.

So a successful Beacon meant a successful Facebook, even if it was not such a successful idea to help consumers.

During a discussion of the mess, the exec noted correctly that the real problem lay in the fact that there has never been a true value proposition offered to Facebook users for tolerating Beacon.

In fact, the value accrued only to Facebook and to the advertiser or retailer, who might get new sales. Advertisers’ reasons for Beaconing are obvious–there is a benefit to this kind of deep relationship-targeting, or there surely will be over time.

After much noise over Beacon, Facebook did back down, trying to assuage those critics by giving users more control over the data with a global opt-out option for users.

That still has raised a lot of questions about security and privacy of data that still could be transmitted.

And it also did not put the onus on Facebook to remove its opt-out system and try to design something users would want to opt-in to.

Opting in, of course, is at the heart of Facebook’s third-party universe of widgets, which users can pick and choose from without being forced to.

It would be nice then, if Facebook would extend those same rights to its audience that it does when it is happily serving up SuperPokes and Vampire Bites.

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