Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/19/fb_easy_to_leave/

Please don't leave me... bitch

Breaking up with Facebook is (less) hard to do

By Christopher Williams

Posted in Security, 19th February 2008 12:47 GMT

It was a long time coming but the web's favourite has-been-in-the-making, Facebook, has finally agreed to let users who are bored with it wrest their personal information from its advertising salesmens' clutches.

Facebook made a botched attempt at unlocking the prison gates last week, after the New York Times deigned to notice its infamous Hotel California data policy. Refugees from the social network at first found parts of their profile were still available, despite a newly-added option to delete it all.

Over the weekend, spinners for the company said it had ironed out technical problems, and promised that it's now possible and simple to commit Facebook suicide without leaving a pickled cadaver of personal information.

The method is still well-hidden and comes across as slightly petulant. To quit Facebook you have to fill in this form - there's a group explaining the process here.

Since Facebook's inception in 2005 contact information, photographs, and all other account details were retained in its enormous targeting database when people tried to leave. Facebook always said the "deactivation" policy was in place for users' benefit in case they changed their oh-so fickle minds and realised that they absolutely must be part of the revolution in online Tupperware-party-style marketing.

As the site took hold in the mainstream last year this ludicrous position raised eyebrows with the Information Commissioner's Office, the UK privacy watchdog. Today the ICO told the Reg its investigation is ongoing.

Facebook's hypocrisy on data was highlighted in December when its 23-year-old founder Mark "I'm CEO... bitch" Zuckerberg went to court in a failed attempt to silence a magazine that had published personal details from his days at Harvard online.

Now that it has accepted that stripping people of ownership of their family photographs in perpetuity isn't a PR winner, the worry for Facebook now must be that too many people notice.

It was the unquestioning bovine herd-brain in all of us that fired its explosive growth, with millions powerless to resist invitations from their "friends". Again it's this inner teenager that Facebook has been hoping to exploit by not allowing you to delete your account; the invitations keep on coming.

The same process could easily work in reverse, however. It only takes a few buffalo to start a stampede.

In fact, it doesn't even need to be a stampede for Facebook to "jump the shark", as the irritating parlance goes (see also: "Drink the Kool-Aid", a pop culture expression that certainly has jumped the shark), and head the same way as Friendster (an early web 2.0 darling, now rarely spoken of) before it.

Alarm bells

As we've written here before, user growth, or rather a swelling database of email addresses and demographic data, is all that these web 2.0 "businesses" have to show show for their hyping, venture capital, betas and presentional kung-fu.

There are early signs that a rot may have already set in. The latest comScore figures show that users are spending less time on Facebook, MySpace and Bebo. For all three that's a bad sign, since the primary service they provide users is a place to waste time; a popular opiate that hardly inspires loyalty.

The deflation of the hype bubble at the public end might not be so potentially damaging if it weren't for the fact that these online procrastination services have so far failed to build a meaningful business at the other. Facebookplans for its cash flow to run $150m in the red this year.

Meanwhile Google's $900m exclusivity deal to serve contextual ads on MySpace, signed 18 months ago, isn't working out like Larry and Sergey hoped. In their last earnings call, Brin said: "I don’t think we have the killer best way to monetize social networks yet. We have had a lot of experiments and some disappointments."

That statement should ring alarm bells in the web 2.0 strategy boutique - at least for the founders who haven't cashed out with a quick sell-off. Google has been able to make vast pots of cash targeting ads based on web searches and emails.

A week later, when asked about Google's struggles to make money from MySpace, News Corp COO Peter Chernin responded: "Clearly our revenue from Google is guaranteed, so that’s not a particular issue for us." However, that guaranteed revenue stream expires two years from now. Little surprise then that Rupert Murdoch is reportedly happy to offload MySpace in an attempt to block Microsoft's Yahoo! takeover.

If the Digger does give the bid the bum's rush, the hordes of bloggers speculating on the minutae of the Microsoft-Yahoo! negotiations have decided that Ballmer should swoop for the 98.4 per cent of Facebook it doesn't own. By Redmond's own maths that would cost $14.76bn, and do wonders for Facebook's cred, no doubt.

If a movement to quit Facebook takes hold and stymies its member growth - its only vaguely tenable claim at being a business - you can bet not even Microsoft's corporate desperation to "get" the web will deliver that kind of payday to the greedy Valley VCs.

Maybe in ten years' time we'll look back at 2007's "Facebook phenomenon" hyperbole and laugh*. Or not. Perhaps it'd be better if we act like it never happened, just like we do now another lemming-esque popular psychosis that gripped the UK ten years earlier. ®

*In this case look out for the Reg web 2.0 commemorative plate collection.