The Beacon: Clever or Creepy?

Today is apparently “Beacon Day” in Wurreyville. I was going to post today (and don’t worry, still will tomorrow) a fun little write up of “Best Holiday Gifts to Buy the Geek in Your Life,” but got sidetracked by a day-long obsession with the Facebook Beacon. It dominated today’s CustomScoop’s PR Blog Jots, and I just recorded a Media Monitoring Minute about it for tomorrow’s For Immediate Release.

While I’d love to assume that most people reading this are already well-aware of Facebook’s recently unveiled “social ad” system, allow me to explain for anyone still in the dark. Facebook has teamed up with outside vendors ( and, to name a couple) and embedded cookies in your browser in order to track user purchases for advertising purposes.

This means if you’re making a purchase on Amazon, you ought to get a pop-up asking for permission to send your purchase to your Facebook newsfeed. They call it a “social ad” because it pops out like “Hey! Your friend Sarah Wurrey just purchased “How to be Awesome,” by Sarah Wurrey, on! Wouldn’t you like to learn how to be awesome?” on your friends’ home pages.

This has caused a bit of hysteria among bloggers, and is sponsoring a (so far meager) online petition against the service. The posts railing on Facebook for invasion of privacy are flying fast and furious, and even the mainstream press has picked up on the story. At first, I was left kind of rolling my eyes and wondering if bloggers weren’t being a little naive. Online privacy is something of an oxymoron after all, isn’t it?

Initially, I didn’t think the Beacon was such a bad idea. I assume nothing I do online is private. Nothing. There are many things I do online that I would never want made public (like banking, get your minds out of the gutter). The potential loss of privacy is just the risk I accept in order to pay all my bills in five minutes while sacked out on my couch watching 90210 reruns on SoapNet. I feel the same way about online shopping—if it’s a purchase you reeeally don’t want anyone to know about, maybe don’t do it online. (Which is what cracks me up so much about that ubiquitous spam offering drugs that will do wonders for a man’s, um, manhood–would a guy with that particular problem really risk ordering something online to solve it? How dumb would he have to be!?)

Aside from that, you have to give permission for the information picked up by Beacon to be shared, right? … Um, right? Here’s where Beacon lost me. I read about Charlene Li’s experience, in which her new coffee table purchase wound up in her newsfeed without her knowledge or consent. Then I read a comment on that post in which one of her readers noted the same thing happened to him, except it was AN ENGAGEMENT RING FOR HIS GIRLFRIEND.

At least that makes a funny engagement story to tell at the rehearsal dinner, eh? And hey, that best man’s speech is practically writing itself! (“I’m sure all of you have already read my speech on Facebook, but I may as well give it anyway, since we’re all here, ha ha…”)

The problem seems to be putting all the responsibility of keeping private information private on the consumer. This comment from my Blog Jots post on this best sums up the problem with forcing the customer to be responsible for opting out, from Jonathan Trenn:

We, the customers, don’t have a choice in the matter. Sure, we can opt out per transaction – that’s if we see the damn notice and hit it in time. But that doesn’t eliminate Facebook from the equation. And the problem there is that the burden is on us…when we didn’t invite Facebook in on all this in the first place.

Jonathan nails it—the customers didn’t ask for this, and yet the full “burden” (and it is a burden) of getting their information out of Facebook is entirely their responsibility, when it should be that of Facebook.

So I’ll echo what many others are already saying—the Beacon is an interesting marketing tool, but in order to work with raising the ire of the millions of Facebook users, it has got to be opt-in.

8 Responses to “The Beacon: Clever or Creepy?”

  1. We should also pressure the third party sites that subscribe to Beacon. I’ve started a FB group in hopes of listing companies to avoid.

  2. [...] Read the rest of the article on Bookmark to:          [...]

  3. Awesome post, Sarah! Very well said.

    I totally agree with the philosophy of keeping *all* things totally private *well* away from the internet (save the super-duper secure financial stuff, as you say! lol).

    I believe privacy is very much under our control on FB and most other sites too – just depends how much members are willing to surf around and tweak their own settings… many of which are not all that intuitive.

  4. Hey Sarah

    Thanks for the shout out.

    I’ve got an idea. Maybe we should all petition Facebook to pay for the guy’s wedding. Small price to pay for the unholy intrusion.


  5. Eric – great idea, they are just as much to blame.

    Mari – I agree with you in theory…but why should the responsibility be entirely on Facebook’s members? Shouldn’t they get to decide beforehand if they want to participate in Beacon before they are thrust into it?

    Jonathan – Seriously! That poor guy. I hope he complained to both Facebook and Overstock. They even linked to the ring AND how much it cost, so everyone in his network not knows just how much his girlfriend’s engagement ring cost. Tacky!

  6. [...] The Beacon: Clever or Creepy? by Sarah Wurrey [...]

  7. I love Eric’s idea. A single, global opt-out would work for me. Give me a big splash screen, let me say “hell no,” and have it apply to all vendors. From what I’ve read this is an each and every time type of opt-out…good grief.

  8. [...] Ouch. I would think the girl would be stoked about that situation – more money for the honeymoon… apparently not though. That story here. [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.