Posted February 3, 2009 4:04 pm by with 2 comments

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Methinks the Telegraph was hoping to spark controversy when they published this article yesterday:

Facebook is planning to exploit the vast amount of personal information it holds on its 150m members by creating one of the world’s largest market research databases.

In an attempt to finally monetise the social networking site, once valued at $15bn (£10.4bn), it will soon allow multinational companies to selectively target its members in order to research the appeal of new products. Companies will be able to pose questions to specially selected members based on such intimate details as whether they are single or married and even whether they are gay or straight.

And yes, were it true, that would definitely be . . . well, if not cause for alarm, at least attention-getting. Let me say it again: were it true.

Because it’s not. Here’s what really happened, as gathered from TechCrunch and AllFacebook:

Facebook made a presentation at the World Economic Forum that showed off a cool real-time polling tool, one that could replace product research focus groups.

When the Telegraph saw how awesome this was, they called up FB for comment, and spoke to Mark Zuckerberg’s sister Randi (okay, so she’s also the global markets director and thus probably the right contact person for a UK newspaper). Randi said that the business research prospects are awesome. Change the context a little and voilà—Facebook is once again invasively exploiting its user base for filthy lucre.

Where did the Telegraph go wrong? Well, just about everywhere, according to AllFacebook:

I spoke with Facebook’s communications department and was informed that the Telgraph article was factually incorrect. Randy Zuckerberg’s comment was misinterpreted apparently. There are two systems right now: the reuse of Facebook’s previous polling system which was displayed at the World Economic Forum and the new polling engagement ads. Essentially everything about this article was incorrect.

Meanwhile, Facebook told TechCrunch:

The polls run at the World Economic Forum were not part of a commercially available product for advertisers and should not be confused with Facebook’s Engagement Ads. At WEF, Facebook ran a series of polls to provide the Davos audience with real-time insight into the opinions of people outside of the conference. These polls were conducted on Facebook using internal tools.

Engagement Ads have been available since September and take five different forms. Most recently, Facebook began testing an Engagement Ad where advertisers can pose a question within the ad itself.

Facebook has, for many years, allowed the targeting of advertising in a non-personally identifiable way, based on profile attributes. Nothing has changed in our approach, and Facebook is committed, as always, to connecting users in a trusted environment.

Okay, so it’s not true. But should it be?

It’s time for Facebook to sell out

Maybe I have a (very) skewed perspective because of that whole marketing thing, or maybe I’m prematurely crotchety, but I think it’s about time Facebook grew up and got to work.

Real-time polling data as product research or a focus group is just one truly awesome monetization idea for Facebook. Randi was right—the business research potential there is huge. Several blogs, including AllFacebook and ReadWriteWeb, have discussed the possibilities for Facebook to become a rich “sentiment engine”—a place to research the public’s opinions on all kinds of products and topics.

None of these products would have to be invasive, either. You would never want to get a message saying, “You must answer this question about this new product before you can write on your friend’s Wall or level up in Mob Wars or post your note ’25 Random Things about Me (arrrgh! they got me!)’.”

Simply targeting someone based on data they’ve willingly provided to Facebook doesn’t seem like an invasion of their privacy to me. (Targeting them around the Internet, off Facebook, based on their FB profile, however, is a completely different story—let’s not forget the illfated Project Beacon.)

What do you think? Is it time Facebook got down to business and started making a little money—or is it more important that FB users get to keep total “privacy” (you know, kind of)?