First, the world's largest social network hijacked users' email accounts and replaced them with a randomly generated @facebook.com e-mail address, and then the company quietly unvelied a new app which allowed people to see which Facebook users are nearby at any given time.
As Facebook struggles to right the course on its disappointing IPO, the latest changes are unsettling for users, and raise a new round of questions about the extent to which the company has users' privacy at heart.
By Tuesday, the "Find Friends Nearby" app had received so much backlash that Facebook opted to pull it. The app had been available on Monday through Facebook's mobile apps and website despite the fact it hadn't been formally announced. But that's exactly the problem: The latest round of changes seem to have been introduced in secret, with little to no prior warning or consent from users. For a company that has been repeatedly dogged by privacy concerns, this method of rolling out new features only aggravates our fears.
To test out the feature on Monday, users could go to fb.com/ffn in a browser. Facebook recently acquired a "social discovery" company called Glancee, which may have contributed to the foundation of the new feature. Facebook developer Ryan Patterson explained on Tech Cruch how he hoped the feature would be used:
"For me, the ideal use case for this product is the one where when you're out with a group of people whom you've recently met and want to stay in contact with. Facebook search might be effective, or sharing your vanity addresses or business cards, but this tool provides a really easy way to exchange contact information with multiple people with minimal friction."
Users did have to opt into the feature by going to that site (otherwise their profiles would not appear in a list of people who are nearby). Still, the invasive and covert new feature sparked such concern that one blog dubbed it a "stalking app." While the technology may very well have helped users stay in contact with new acquaintances, the potential risks involved with allowing other users to see your whereabouts at all times made this a scary app.
In the second troubling development of the week, Facebook secretly replaced users' email with an @Facebook account. Now, when you send messages to external e-mail addresses, your e-mails will be formatted to look like Facebook messages, including your name, your profile picture and your message. Your e-mail will appear as email@example.com when you send messages to external e-mail addresses.
Chris Miles reports, "The e-mail change may not be as sinister as selling your phone number to call banks, but it is a questionable move by the company. The event brings up privacy concerns, but, more importantly, begs the age-old question Facebook constantly toes: How will a massive company use all of the private information from so many millions of profiles to its own benefit? Facebook is starting to impose its will on all of us. I've become "Chris Miles 7927," just another cog in the great Facebook machine."
The bigger issue here is that as the company gets bigger, it will continue to introduce new apps and features to innovate and turn around its struggling stock price. But, in doing so, it also runs the risk of alienating loyal users. With its latest acquisitions of smaller companies like Instagram, some commentators have already charged that Facebook has become the Big Brother of the social media world. It may be still too early to go that far, but what's clear is that users are growing increasingly uneasy with what they feel as a surrendering of control to the internet giant. Many users now use Facebook begrudgingly, as a matter of habit but not because they feel particularly attached to or fond of the site.
One step that would clearly help would be for Facebook management to clearly announce new changes and the rollout of new features to users, so as not to take us by surprise or alienate us further. This is the least the company can do. Facebook's unique visitors in the U.S. has fallen 4.8% in the past 6 months. If the company wishes to reverse this downward trend and win back its once passionate fanbase, it's time to include us in the conversation.