Facebook Comments: a social data honeytrap?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Facebook wants to be your comments service. A few weeks ago, it revamped its Facebook Comments service, and relaunched, grabbing sites like Techcrunch and GigaOm along the way. Facebook clearly has ambitions to be the social service for the web, and this is another step in that direction.

I’ve been watch its spread with some interest. Comment-based communities are fascinating to me, if only because we’ve successfully built a number of them around our blogs. Getting commenting right is hard, takes management, and can actually increase its management needs exponentially as your success grows. Any technology that eases that is going to be attractive.

And, at first glance, the Facebook paradigm of “real names only” seems to encourage more responsible behaviour in commenting. If you are locked out of anonymity the greater internet f**kwad theory no longer comes into play. Trolling has more consequences. But there is a flipside to that. We have markets where anonymity is a virtue in allowing people to actually join in discussions where exposing their own names would put others at risk. Our social work communities would probably be killed stone dead by enforced real identities. I suspect that people who find this a very attractive proposition haven’t really looked at the range of research that’s been done on how people build multiple identities for themselves on the web. At its simplest level, sometimes people want a clear delineation between work activities and “friends and family” ones.

We’ve all seen the great traffic gains that the Facebook Like button can provide, which will almost certainly have been boosted by recent changes to the way it operates. A version of commenting that pushes all the load to Facebook’s servers, that enforces real identities, minimises spam and drives traffic from the news feed is a very compelling proposition.

And yet, it makes me very uneasy, and here’s why:

In essence, as Matthew Ingram suggests, it seems that many companies are looking for a magic wand that will take the challenges of community management away. Certainly, I’ve had plenty of experience of people whose attitude to comments is to ignore them until they become a problem, and then demand a magic technical solution. I’m sure that, to some people, Facebook Comments looks like that solution.

lt just has a touch of the “oh, company x will save us” attitude that seems prevalent amongst those in the journalism game right now. That might be Apple with its tablet or Facebook with its comments, but I’m deeply sceptical that a single saviour company is going to heal all publishing’s ills. Publishers are already feeling burnt by Apple’s subscription terms. I think seeing Facebook Comments as a saviour will inflict a worse injury.

In particular, I find the idea of handing your community interaction wholesale to Facebook to be both disconcerting and short-sighted. Facebook is a competitor to every publisher, both for advertising and eyeballs, and helping build its absolute dominance of everything social on the web feels like a short term gain for a long term loss. In fact, I think you can tell a lot about the companies who have chosen to adopt Facebook comments, because they’ve swapped any form of “owned” relationship with their community for page views. And when publishers are howling in protest at Apple making transfer of subscription information to be optional and at the customer’s discretion, handing the whole infrastructure of discussion to a walled garden that just won’t let that data come back to you (unlike, say, Disqus, Facebook Comments does not yet allow you any way to get the comments back out of the system) seems bizarre.

Facebook has huge ambition s to dominate the social web. I’m not sure that I’m ready to bend down before it and call it “master” just yet.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.