Media Guy Mailbag: On Facebook's T.O.S. and Yahoo's 'Community' Spirit

You Have Questions, Dumenco Has Answers

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'Community,' where new episodes will soon appear not on TV but Yahoo.
'Community,' where new episodes will soon appear not on TV but Yahoo. Credit: NBC

Welcome to Vol. 5 of the Media Guy Mailbag. This is where I respond to reader feedback and happily answer your questions about media, marketing, pop culture, kittens, kitchen remodeling on a budget -- anything! So send me an email with "Media Guy Mailbag" in the subject line. More details below.

Reader James De Francisco writes,

"Do you think Yahoo scooping up 'Community' will be a turning point in the expectations of where viewers will look for entertainment? From the broad view it looks like more of the same -- a good show having a home on the internet -- but to me this will cause a new surge of changes. It's significant in my eyes since: It was a show on broadcast TV, so those viewers who stick with it will have more practice with the training wheels to look online. It's a great show that, if made better, could make the medium that gave it up look weaker in the eyes of viewers or creators. And its web home doesn't require a subscription like Netflix/Amazon."

James closes with, "I think the resurrection will offer a butterfly effect to the progression of web distribution and where eyeballs look for content."

James, I think Yahoo giving "Community" a sixth season could be a meaningful turning point for older viewers -- presuming the numbers work out for Yahoo in terms of ROI. But for younger viewers, everything you're talking about is already a done deal.

Keep in mind that, according to Nielsen, the median age of viewers for the big four broadcast networks is 52.

Now, read this Variety post from Tuesday: "Survey: YouTube Stars More Popular Than Mainstream Celebs Among U.S. Teens."

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Reader Juliana Casale writes,

"I've been watching with fascination as Facebook has fielded criticism about manipulating its News Feed algorithm to test user response to emotionally weighted content -- and now OKCupid has let on that it, too, has been testing customer behavior by altering its compatibility data. Cue the media shitstorm."

Juliana says that she doesn't "get the frenzied response for two key reasons: 1. All good businesses A/B test and ask 'What if we ______?' 2. These are free services that people voluntarily sign up for. So my question is (and I feel very Carrie Bradshaw about this): In a world where the NSA is tapping our phones and the TSA are patting us down, why do people still have the illusion of privacy and protection on the Internet (particularly when they hand their information over to a virtual stranger who is out to make money)?"

Juliana, you're right. We're naive to expect that our privacy and personal data will be protected and respected on the internet by anyone. But I think these scandals resonate nonetheless because the companies involved are still trying to pretend that they're our friends and only want the best for us and the "user experience." Their behavior proves otherwise.

And while A/B testing is usually about the product, or about testing different approaches to marketing the product, the Facebook and OKCupid experiments were about us. Meaning, the tests were about manipulating consumer behavior in explicitly creepy ways. When you click to accept Terms of Service, no matter how resigned you are to ridiculously overreaching legalese, your intent is definitely not to say to these companies: "Go ahead and fuck with me! Screw with my emotions! Facebook, make me sad by manipulating my News Feed and then watch to see if I spread my sadness! OKCupid, please alter the presentation of my profile so I'll end up going on bad dates with inappropriate matches for me!"

The best, most nuanced analysis of both scandals I've read so far comes from Tim Carmody in a post titled "The problem with OKCupid is the problem with the social web," from his recent stint guest-hosting Kottke.org. Please read the whole thing, but for now, here's what he has to say about the various arguments that accept the Facebook and OKCupid experiments as reasonable:

"They're all too quick to accept that users of these sites are readers who've agreed to let these sites show them things. They don't recognize or respect that the users are also the ones who've made almost everything that those sites show."

Carmody's argument is that these companies are breaking our social contract with them -- "the basic agreement that we make these things and give them to you so you will show them to other people" -- and in the end concludes that "It's not A/B testing. It's just being an asshole."

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THIS WEEK'S SWAG: I'm giving James and Juliana $15 iTunes gift cards as thanks for writing in.

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For next time: Send me an email with "Media Guy Mailbag" in the subject line and your question in the body of your email. Each installment of Media Buy Mailbag I'll choose one or more questions to answer, and if your question is published I'll send you some media swag or a gift certificate for media as thanks.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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