For people who sit atop the world of this thing called social media, those in charge of Facebook seem to be challenged when it comes to playing by the rules of real society. The latest example is the company's move to apply the "Like" function across the entire web all the while compiling users' data.
In marketing and public relations, perception is half the battle. And the appearance is that the company is running rough-shod over the privacy of its millions of users, many of whom have no idea what's being done with their data.
This has attracted the attention of Washington. Last week, New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer urged the Federal Trade Commission to hammer out guidelines for privacy settings on social-networking sites, days after Facebook announced its plan to gather affinity data from all across the internet with its new Open Graph platform.
"We were surprised by Sen. Schumer's comments and look forward to sitting down with him and his staff to clarify," said a Facebook spokesman.
If that statement is true -- if Facebook is actually surprised by Mr. Schumer's comments -- then the company's got a bigger problem than simple growing pains.
Facebook -- and many other companies like it -- will rightly point out that users do have the ability to change privacy settings. Like it or not, when such an entity has millions of users and many of them aren't properly educated about privacy issues, the government will step in. Besides, opt-out tools don't cut it when the process is so convoluted that even seasoned users often seem at a loss as to how to find the settings to switch them.
But privacy isn't the only problem for Facebook. It's the bubble in which it lives, one in which it seems to forget the fact that it has to play by Washington's rules. The bigger it gets, the more important that rule becomes. For many perfectly valid reasons the word "lobbyist" has negative connotations. But from Microsoft to Google, tech companies learn quickly that lobbyists are worth their weight in gold.
It might not be too late for Facebook to remedy this situation. And the fixes aren't that hard: Be much more careful about privacy. Make it much easier for users to change settings. Educate users well in advance of rolling out these new initiatives. And realize that even a social-media company has to turn to old-fashioned PR and government outreach to manage expectations and relationships.