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Facebook News Feed: The Newest Spam Supplier?

Unfortunately due to a server failure in April 2008, posts made prior will not have any of the referenced images... my wordpress content folder was wiped out. Sorry if that causes any confusion when reading. -ac

I have come to terms with the fact that I am a Facebook Fanatic (capitalized, because it might as well be an official title), and as such I have enjoyed the transformation of facebook from a small, college-based social network with its single text-box ‘Wall’ in the days before ‘status updates’ and ‘global groups’ to the behemoth, semi-open platform that is is today. It has endured its bumps in the road: the most pertinent to this post being the Great News Feed User Revolt of 2006. facebook has done wonders, insofar as it truly has revolutionized the real-life social structures and interactions amongst people (primarily in the college world), and has begun to play a key role in the online presence of major companies and organizations.

As a part of this, ‘News Feed Optimization’ has become a rising concept in the online media world: some have proclaimed it to be the new SEO; the best way to thrust your online presence into the forethought of the online masses. (see Inside Facebook or the follow-up post from Dave McClure) The News Feed has become the newest testing grounds for facebook advertisers who supplement their $1,000,000/yr sponsored groups with feed updates about new products, contests, and upcoming movies.

An open, seamless way to transport your personal data, is the next big ‘thing’ for social networking, but this is probably still aways off in the future, so in the meantime we get intra-network aggregation where we can see the activity that happens all across our ‘social graph’…with News Feed it is like a giant spider web and we get to set the preferences so that we only detect the biggest vibrations from areas we want to know about.

However, with the rise of News Feed Optimization, we will see new players using this mass-notification tool to force feed us content that might not be the type of information we were planning on getting, or would have preferred to get. The same thing has happened with e-mail, blogs, blog comments, MySpace messages/bulletins, text messages on cell phones, and just about any other conceived method of user communication. Of course, I’m talking about the prevalence of spam: the scourge of the known internet that new laws or government policies will never be able to actually eradicate. It has become an expected variable in our online worlds; we all run spam filters for our email, popup blockers on our web browsers, Askimet for our blog comments, and sometimes we just get a dog for the door-to-door salesman. Now, as with all new communication tools, it seems that spam has begun to infiltrate the News Feed via another new facebook feature: facebook Polls.

When a user creates a poll, it gets posted in the news feed of all users in a specified demographic until a specified number of respondents is reached. This is an awesome low-cost data-gathering tool (it could use some upgrades and expansions, but it is a good first step), that is used by many groups, including student governments who now have a new tool for gaging student opinion on their respective campuses. Yesterday, I noticed a poll in my News Feed that was touting some new dating site while trying to pass it off as a new facebook feature. The response options were all positive for the site, and I didn’t think much about it at the time other than “Wow, that is a badly constructed polling question.” However, today, I took a greater notice when I had another ‘advertising poll’ in my Feed about a different site (see screenshot from my News Feed approx. 9:00 pm CST, 9/8/07).
News Feed shot

It seems to be following along the lines of other forms of spam: Sex Sells. But I guess, there really is no need to re-invent the wheel on this one. This just made me realize that with user-controlled tools that affect the News Feed flow on a massive scale to users across the facebook network, it ipens a whole new world for spamming people in their ambient online surroundings. I didn’t take much notice to the first poll because it was an isolated occurrence, but a second Spam Poll in less than 24 hours?…seems like the start of a trend, because I doubt I’m the only person out there to notice them.

This could majorly affect users’ impressions of the News Feed unless facebook steps up controls on what you an ‘inject’ into your network’s Feed. If the Feed becomes spam-filled, it loses its relevance and the people who have come to check facebook as often as email will start to wonder if it is worth their time to get spammed endlessly when all they really want to know is if their old roommate has gone from ‘Its Complicated’ to “In a Relationship”. This has to be done carefully, though because it is generally a bad idea in infringe upon the idea of user generated content be unfiltered and open to the masses, but at the same time, facebook will have to protect the masses from the few among them who take that notion to an extreme. It will be interesting to see if new forms of spam are developed for features such as the News Feed, and how facebook will respond. Users have fought the News Feed once, will they do it again?

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