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Facebook gets more in your face

Facebook Home, intended to dominate the Android cellphone interface, will be welcomed by those who can't get enough of the social network. But its use will come at the continued expense of privacy.

April 04, 2013|David Lazarus
  • Facebook unveiled Facebook Home, an interface for Android devices.
Facebook unveiled Facebook Home, an interface for Android devices. (Facebook )

It's hard not to detect a whiff of desperation in Facebook's new please-don't-go interface, which is determined to keep people within the social network as long as it can.

Facebook Home is intended to dominate Android smartphones, making Facebook your first and last port of call as you traverse the wireless wonderland. It will keep Facebook features front and center, rather than require users to use an app.

As the company's hoodie-wearer-in-chief, Mark Zuckerberg, said at the unveiling of the software Thursday, "We're building something a whole lot deeper than an ordinary app."

Or as bunny-stewing Glenn Close put it in "Fatal Attraction": "I'm not going to be ignored."

Certainly no one can knock Facebook for wanting more face time. The company is grappling with so-called Facebook fatigue among many of its billion-plus users, especially younger people who realize, among other things, that it's not so cool hanging out at the same cyber-venue as their parents.

Wall Street, meanwhile, has been wringing its hands over Facebook's longevity in a wireless world. Is the service well-suited for mobile devices, or will people congregate instead on the likes of Twitter and Pinterest?

Facebook Home is the company's answer to these concerns. And there are some things to admire about the software.

Quiz: How much do you know about Facebook?

And there are some things, such as privacy implications, that are more troubling.

If you're a heavy Facebook user, the new interface is pretty nifty. It bundles various Facebook features together, transforming the home screen of your phone into what the company calls a "cover feed" of news and images from friends.

There's also a souped-up messaging feature intended to keep the chit-chat lively and picture-friendly.

The idea, clearly, is that if you liked your old mobile Facebook experience, you're going to love Facebook Home.

But all that Facebook-centric activity also means the company is going to have access to a lot more information about users' likes, dislikes and online behavior, not to mention the added perk of knowing exactly where you were when you clicked a particular button.

"They're getting a lot of information," said Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University. "This is very important to them. It's what they need for targeted advertising, which is where they make most of their revenue."

That will be a red flag for some people, and rightly so. Marketers salivate over the treasure trove of personal information served up for them by social media.

Forget focus groups. Skip the polls and surveys. Thanks to Facebook, Google and similar online data dumping grounds, everything a marketer needs to know about everyone is readily available, willingly offered up by consumers themselves.

Add location to the mix — and that's exactly what a smartphone does to the equation — and marketers find themselves in the glorious position of knowing what you like, how you shop and where the closest retailer can be found.

Zuckerberg said there won't be ads right away on Facebook Home, but "I'm sure that one day there will be."

Lightman said there's no question that Facebook Home will provide the company with more information about users and that Facebook won't hesitate to make profitable use of that info. But he said this isn't necessarily reason to worry.

"When Gmail first started, people were creeped out when targeted ads began showing up," Lightman said. "Now people are kind of fine with it. It's the trade-off for the value that you receive."

Anindya Ghose, co-director of the Center for Business Analytics at New York University, said Facebook is reaching deeper into users' personal lives but that this is basically what social networks have done since they first bounded onto the scene.

"It's just the way things are," he said.

I agree. Anyone who chooses to use a service like Facebook or Google has made a decision to share potentially intimate details of his or her life — and if you don't think your Google searches reveal oodles of info about who you are, you're in for a very rude awakening.

Of course, Facebook won't suddenly gain access to info it has no business sticking its nose into. For example, it won't be peeking over your shoulder as you bank online or pay bills, at least not until those services are offered within the Facebook universe.

With Facebook Home, the company is slicing itself a bigger piece of your personal pie. Perhaps the most important question is whether people want their phones to be so Facebook-intensive or whether they prefer keeping the social network caged up with other apps.

I suspect some will enjoy being on Facebook all the time and some won't, just as others will have similar opinions about the inevitable Google, Twitter and other such interfaces that will be coming down the pike.

"From an advertiser's perspective, this is obviously a great thing," said Michael Trusov, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Maryland. "The question is how much users will be in control of things."

Here's a little advice: Take a few minutes to fiddle with your privacy settings.

Facebook may want to treat you as if everything you do is public knowledge. But you don't have to make it easy for it.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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