Whenever a big company is in the news for the wrong reason, it’s never long before a #Delete<Company> hashtag appears. We saw it most recently with #DeleteUber.

The thing about these campaigns is that some people do – but most don’t. If Facebook were simply facing a one-off controversy over its negligence in allowing a third-party to misuse data, then with the right handling, it would soon be business as usual.

But the signs so far are that the social network isn’t handling this crisis well. Couple this to longstanding grumbles about newsfeeds, and the #DeleteFacebook campaign could easily become a serious threat to the company’s future …

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Let me start by reiterating what I wrote earlier:

There is no suggestion that Facebook was actively complicit in the misuse of personal data by a third party. However, the fact that the misuse was even possible does point to negligence on the part of the social network. Most users are unaware that they are handing over data to third-parties when they take a poll, quiz or ‘test.’ And it is clearly completely unacceptable that companies can obtain the data of friends of those who take quizzes.

Much has been written about how to handle a PR crisis. The key elements are these:

  • Address the problem immediately – don’t wait and hope it will go away
  • Be honest about messing up
  • Offer a sincere (or at least, sincere-sounding) apology
  • Lay out the specific steps you are taking to ensure it doesn’t happen again
  • Ask for forgiveness, and acknowledge that this may take time

So far, Facebook isn’t doing very well at this. Rather than respond immediately, Zuckerberg went into lockdown. He would argue that he was gathering information, but that’s no excuse: Facebook has known about this since 2015.

Facebook did admit to messing up, and it did apologize, but not very well.

You may have heard about a quiz app built by a university researcher that leaked Facebook data of millions of people in 2014. This was a breach of trust, and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time. We’re now taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

The apology was buried in the middle. Basically the message here is ‘it was someone else who did it, we’re sorry anyway, and we’re going to fix it.’ A heartfelt apology needed to be much more like:

We allowed your data to be misused. That misuse was by a third-party, but we are responsible for protecting your data, and we failed. I’d like to offer you my personal apology for that failure, and my assurance that addressing this matter is my number one priority.

Facebook did much better when it came to laying out the steps it is taking.

We’ve already stopped apps like this from getting so much information. Now we’re limiting the data apps get when you sign in using Facebook.

We’re also investigating every single app that had access to large amounts of data before we fixed this. We expect there are others. And when we find them, we will ban them and tell everyone affected.

Finally, we’ll remind you of which apps you’ve given access to your information — so you can shut off the ones you don’t want anymore.

But that raises the question why these steps weren’t taken back in 2015.

Finally, Zuckerberg’s statement didn’t ask for forgiveness, it assumed it.

Thank you for believing in this community.

Right now, he has no right to make that assumption.

Facebook’s newsfeed failings

Usually, #Delete campaigns are mostly hot-air – and that’s because people have come to rely on the app, service or product in question. Only a minority stop using it, and of those, many quietly resume their usage later once all the fuss has died down.

But with Facebook, a lot of people have been dissatisfied with the platform for a long time. I can’t tell you how many complaints I’ve seen about the newsfeed becoming more and more cluttered with junk, and less and less useful for its original function – allowing us to keep up to date with our friends’ lives.

There are four things wrong with Facebook’s feed in my view:

  • Sponsored posts are too frequent, and too poorly targeted
  • Facebook shows things people have Liked with as much prominence as actual posts
  • Facebook continually messes with the sequence of our feeds
  • There are too many memes, links and non-personal posts

Sponsored posts

It’s not just ads. We all understand that when a service is free, the company has to make money, and ads are necessary. But sponsored posts have grown in volume tremendously – and despite the crazy amount of data Facebook has on us, they are often very poorly targeted. At least show me sponsored posts for things likely to interest me.

Likes

I get it. If a good friend likes a post, that’s something I might want to see. But I don’t want Likes to have as much prominence as actual posts, and I don’t want to see them from more casual friends. Facebook needs to put all the ‘X liked’ alerts at the bottom of the feed, beneath posts.

Sequences

I get this too: Facebook tries to learn whose posts interest us most based on whether we’ve listed them as a close friend, and how much we interact with each person’s posts by reacting and commenting. Sounds great in theory, but seems to be a complete failure in practice.

I particularly hate reaching a post I’ve seen before, thinking I’ve caught up, and then finding there are new posts further down – and a new comment or reaction has bumped up the old one.

Since Facebook appears incapable of getting these algorithms right – and it’s not just me who feels this, I hear the same thing from a huge number of my Facebook friends – then allow us the option of reading posts in sequential order. Most importantly, once we’ve chosen this, don’t ever mess with it again.

Junk posts

A huge proportion of Facebook posts aren’t personal ones: they are shared links, memes and so on. I appreciate that’s not Facebook’s fault – people share what they want to share – but again I’d like to see these appear beneath real, live posts. What I most want to read are what my friends are up to in their lives.

So here’s my suggested order:

  • Real posts
  • Links, memes, etc
  • Shared posts
  • Likes/other reactions

For links and shares, Facebook can detect these automatically. For people uploading memes and similar, Facebook can look for content that is duplicated across many posts and flag them that way.

The threat to Facebook isn’t real yet, but it could be at any moment

It’s easy to think any dominant brand is unassailable. But history teaches us otherwise.

Nokia once dominated the mobile phone market. It was the brand everyone wanted to own. At its peak, one in every two mobile phones sold was a Nokia. Now its market share is around 1%.

Blackberry had the corporate mobile device market almost to itself, and across the market as a whole its peak market share was 20%. Now it’s just a fraction of a percent.

Microsoft once dominated the computer industry, but its failure to move into mobile with enough speed and care meant that at a time when around half of all web access is on a mobile device, the company has abandoned the smartphone market altogether.

Facebook currently has more than two billion active users. Of those, 1.4B login every single day. Facebook is huge, and an integral part of many people’s lives (one stat I’ve seen says that half of 18-24 year olds with an account look at Facebook as soon as they wake up).

I’d find it hard to imagine my own life without Facebook. Among my circle of friends, it’s taken over from both email and other forms of messaging. I have friends whose email address I don’t even know because we just message on Facebook. I have friends on the other side of the world whose daily lives I still know about thanks to their Facebook posts.

That’s the additional barrier to switching social networks, of course: we need our friends to do the same. That chicken-and-egg problem is why Hello and others have so far failed to make a dent in the market currently owned by Facebook.

But there are barriers to switching mobile platform too, and as we’ve seen above, market leaders can fail. Unless Facebook gets its act together – in terms of its newsfeed as well as user privacy – it could be next in line.

Where are you at with Facebook? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Photos: Reuters; PA; TechCrunch


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