When Facebook changed its terms of service on Monday, it caused an immediate uproar, and when people screamed loudly enough, Facebook backed down. What this shows me is that although Facebook is a free service, it exists and is successful because we make it so.
The millions of people who sign up for the free service are the source of its revenue and as such, it's a symbiotic relationship. We use Facebook to connect with friends, and Facebook makes money. It is fairly trivial to make a service like Facebook--maybe not the application-building part, but certainly the community part, and if people decided to leave in large enough numbers, Facebook could lose significant ad revenue.
Whose content is it anyway?
It raises a question about online services in general. When you post content, whom does it belong to? Should you have a reasonable expectation of maintaining ownership? Amanda French did this analysis of terms of service on other free services and found that most (except LinkedIn) explicitly state that your content belongs to you. Certainly when you leave the service, the content should revert to you at the very least. That's why the Facebook change was so outrageous. It said, not only could Facebook use your stuff, even when you left you couldn't take your stuff back.
Brogan Weighs In
Many people were justifiably miffed, but others such as social media guru, Chris Brogan thought people were overreacting when he wrote: "They own your content. No matter what you feel, if you’ve put it on their servers, it’s in their possession." I think Brogan is a brilliant guy and I often agree with him, but in this instance I didn't.
Yes, they have possession of my content, but that doesn't mean they own it or that they can use it (and it certainly doesn't mean they own it forever even after I stop using the service). I was shocked by how many people agreed with Brogan in his comments section. It seemed that many folks didn't see it as that big deal. Ho hum. Facebook wants to own my pictures, big whoop, but others were outraged and the noise was loud.
Zuckerberg Wants us To Trust Him
In fact, it was loud enough that man-child Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (tell me he doesn't look he's about 12) went on Fox News and implored users to simply trust him. Excuse me while I laugh loudly. Funny thing is, Zuckerberg must have received a similar message because this morning we found that in fact, Facebook reverted to the old terms of service. Imagine that.
Zuckerberg did a 180 from 'Trust Us' and reverted to the terms of service from the day before yesterday and promised that Facebook was actually working on an entirely new ToS where and I quote:
"It will reflect the principles I described yesterday around how people share and control their information, and it will be written clearly in language everyone can understand."
Power to the People
In the end, people spoke up and enough made their feelings clear. Facebook to its credit recognized that it needs its members as much as the members need a service to connect to friends online. An online service is only viable if people use it, and if people become disenchanted and leave in large numbers, they lose their economic power. Remember that the next time some powerful force says you have to accept a change. Fact is you don't. You can use the power of social networking and make them hear you.