Socializing With Your Friends Amid The Commercial Clutter

Greg Benedetto believes in the old adage "the customer comes first." He worked for Canada's HMV record chain for two years as a teenager and, in that time, learned a thing or two about getting people to buy things. "A customer who is treated well probably won't say anything," he says. "But a customer who is treated poorly will tell everyone they know." And that is exactly what Benedetto plans to do if Facebook's new targeted ad campaign gets out of hand. Already Benedetto has invited all 562 of his Facebook friends to join the group Stand Up! Don't Let Facebook Invade Your Social Life With Ads!

What's got Benedetto worked up is a statement from social-networking site Facebook earlier this month indicating that it would make data on its 30.6 million members available to advertisers, who want to tailor ads to members' hobbies and preferences. Under the new "Social Ads" program, anyone who, for example, lists an interest in travel will be served up ads for cheap fares and hotels. Facebook wouldn't comment, but on the firm's blog, ads project manager Leah Pearlman defends the practice. "Engaging with businesses and buying things are part of your everyday life," she says. The new system will work to "make ads more appealing" to members.

Social-networking sites are a potentially rich vein for advertisers. (MySpace also recently began supporting targeted ads.) Facebook, which recently sold a portion of the company to Microsoft, maintains that it will not sell personal information directly to marketers. Instead, it will compile users' "social actions"—edits they make to their profiles and information on the other sites they visit—and sell marketers the option of reaching out to members who, by their actions, fit certain demographics. Will Facebook members, who have a more personal relation to the site than, say, Google mail or Yahoo search-engine users, abandon the site?

Benedetto and other activists say yes. "Companies want to know what they can sell to a male who is 22 and living in Toronto and reads certain books and listens to certain music," says Benedetto, a 22-year-old Toronto native. "But when it comes to using my identity or my friends' identities to hawk a product, that's crossing the line."

History, however, suggests that the rebellion won't last. Facebook has survived several outraged threats by its members to quit. When membership was limited to college students and members of professional networks, there was speculation that Facebook would eventually open its doors to anyone with an e-mail address. Users started a group called I WILL Leave Facebook If It Becomes Public. Even though Facebook opened up to outsiders last fall, the group still has 28 active members.

A similar uproar occurred in September 2006, when Facebook debuted its News Feed, which greets members with their friends' recent profile edits—an informal way to track the latest personal updates on careers, love lives, families and so on. Angry members argued that the News Feed, which is similar to a stock ticker or a news wire in that it constantly refreshes information on what users are up to, was invasive and smacked of Big Brother. In protest, users started groups like Students Against Facebook News Feed (Official Petition to Facebook), which has 240,746 members, and Facebook News Feed Sucks, which has 1,719 members. But many Facebook members have come to embrace the Feed. "I like the part of Facebook that tells you who broke up with who and what everyone is up to," says Tony Gingrasso, a 27-year-old law student at Hameline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Facebook will, in fact, be using the News Feed as part of its new Social Ads application.

Gingrasso thinks Facebook's new targeted ads will eventually gain general acceptance. Emily Riley, an analyst for Jupiter Research, predicts the membership loss from Social Ads alone "is not going to be too substantial." If there is a real threat, Riley says, it comes from members' being turned off by new applications such as Mood, which allows members to add mood-reflecting emoticons to their profiles, and Drinks, which gives members a way to buy each other virtual libations. Taken together, these offerings create the kind of "clutter" generally associated with MySpace, says Riley. Targeted ads, of course, will add further to Facebook's clutter. But for a site supported by advertising, she notes, the loss of a few annoyed members may be a necessary sacrifice.