No, Facebook, Your “Extraordinary Gift” Did Not Create The Personalized Web

Mark and his team have built an incredible tool which has customized every website out there for individuals. It has always been the case since the dawning of the World Wide Web that we would all go to the same site and get the same information. The flip side of this privacy story that some people are telling right now is that we have customized and individualized every single website out there for people, if they choose to have it. That’s an extraordinary gift to the public.

–Facebook public policy director Tim Sparapani, May 18, 2010

Wow. That’s an extraordinary rewriting of history by Facebook.

I’ve been using the World Wide Web since 1994. If that wasn’t from the “dawning” of the web, it was still pretty early in the morning when I began using it.

In that time, I’ve had no end of web sites that have offered me a personalized experience without this new extraordinary gift from Facebook.

There’s this little web site some people may have heard of called Amazon? Years and years ago, I remember going to this site, and it knew who I was! It remembered what I’d purchased! It offered me suggestions of other things to buy!

It was an extraordinary gift to me and other members of the public. I recall being surprised that Jeff Bezos and his team were never fully honored for helping the public in this way. Helped, that is, beyond the money they earned off the public.

There’s this other web site called Google? I remember years ago when I would do a search, I’d actually get different results than other people doing the exact same search! Amazing. It was an extraordinary gift to the public, to personalize search results in this way. I wonder how Google will get repaid for this gift, other than all the money they earn from search, of course.

There also this other site, called Yahoo? Back in the 1990s, it let me create a personalized home page. I could have things like my own horoscope or news headlines. Things that were unique to me. Offering a personalized portal like this was an extraordinary gift to the public.

I went to a blog recently. I had done a search on Google, clicked on a link that took me to the blog, and it said right at the top something like “Welcome! You came here from Google,” and it showed me the actual search terms I’d used! Then it suggested other content on the site related to those terms, which I might want to read. It was so personalized to what I’d just done. Whoever created that WordPress plug-in has made an extraordinary gift to the public.

There was also this site called MyBlogLog? It still runs. Yahoo owns it, even if they’ve forgotten they own it. MyBlogLog let me put this code on my web site, so that if other people came to the site — and they were members of MyBlogLog — they’d see pictures of other people they knew who were there or had been there recently. It made for a really personalized experience. It was an extraordinary gift to the public.

There’s this other site, called Digg? A few years ago, they offered these little buttons that you could put on all your pages? So that people who “liked” your content could push the button? They called it the Digg button. It helped customize pages across the web for anyone, so they could share those pages with others. It was an extraordinary gift to the public.

This site, called Delicious? They had some buttons like that too. So did this site called StumbleUpon. Those sites and many more allowed you to “like” your content to your other friends in their networks. These were all extraordinary gifts to the public.

Facebook didn’t just suddenly invent personalized web sites, and it’s grating to hear a spokesperson try and create that myth.

It’s also just inaccurate to say that Facebook has customized every single web site out there.

There are millions of web sites. Billions of web pages. I’ve been tweeting and writing about how few, relatively speaking, have these Facebook buttons on them. Here are some harder numbers from Rand Fishkin over at SEOmoz.

After the first week the buttons and related widgets were released, more than 50,000 websites had installed them, Facebook said. With there being 86 million root domains, as estimated by SEOmoz, that means Facebook had “socialized” or “personalized” 0.06% of the entire web.

Sure, it’s been about a month now since the tools were released. Maybe we’re up to a million sites with them installed now. That’s still practically no web sites making use of Facebook’s customization features. And that’s only counting a “root domain” as a web site. Many root domains actually serve as host to other web sites within them (, for example, is a root domain that hosts millions of other web sites within it like

Here’s the US White House web site. Does a single link on it to their Facebook page count as customization? If so, then anyone who links to ANY other site from has “customized” their own site. Here’s Rex Swain’s long-standing HTTP viewer web site. Not a Facebook link nor like button on it.

The web was already socially connected in various ways before your new tools came out last week, Facebook. I recently argued with Robert Scoble about this. Yesterday. Randall Stross in the New York Times summarized it well, how the web is already interconnected in ways far beyond what you provide through links and other connections.

I’m glad you’re looking to make understanding privacy easier, as also covered in the interview. The new privacy settings tool from Reclaim Privacy should provide a lesson on how easily you can alert people to settings.

But please don’t rewrite history. Please don’t make claims that are patently untrue. And please don’t suggest that your business moves are about making “extraordinary gifts” to the public. You’re a business. You make products, not gifts. If you make a good product, the public will respond with an extraordinary gift of our support and time.

For those interested in more about the interview, see Wired’s write-up here, and you can watch it yourself here or below:

Also, here are some recent writings I’ve done on the topic of Facebook and privacy over at Search Engine Land:

For related news, see Techmeme.


  1. says

    Fantastic post as usual Danny. The audacity of facebook at large really baffles me sometimes. Hopefully zuckerberg gives this a little looksie.

  2. Robert says

    Usually gifts are given with no expectation of anything in return. This “gift” is more like a Trojan horse… these like buttons report your behavior back to Facebook, whether you click like or not.

  3. Michael says

    One time, as a web developer, I uploaded a rock’in animated GIF that I had made myself from a stolen cropped photo with minor tweaks in each frame.

    It didn’t look great BUT it was an extraordinary gift to the public.

    Do I get a stake in Facebook (or a pony)?

  4. says

    What bugs me most about Facebook’s “gift” is that I have such little control over who that information is shared with. I gave my information to Amazon and with every purchase, they were customizing their experience to match my expectations. I didn’t share my information with Facebook’s partners, and I don’t necessarily want those other sites to know my information.

  5. says

    Some very apt snark there! Someone had to say it, and I’m glad it was you. By the way, I was manager of the charity behind the annual “Vision Awards,” and we actually gave one to Jeff Bezos some years ago. So, he’s got thanked good, with a rather nice paperweight!

    I remember joining back around 1999 or so, then Friendster a few years later, and then MySpace, and then someone got me to join up on Bebo, Hi5 and even Yahoo360 — but I’m really glad that Facebook is here now, “pioneering” in their footsteps. And I’ll be glad for whoever comes along and usurps its position, too.

  6. No_OnE says

    Spot on. FB just managed to do what the Roman empire was so very good at; shamelessly copy all the good they saw along the way. The “same site same content” concept was there, but that’s before www, when it was mainly techs and researchers who used the growing net for documentation.

  7. Andrew says

    I can’t believe this lawyer Tim Sparapani used to work for the ACLU and worked closely with the EFF. It only took him a year to burn his entire professional reputation.

  8. says

    LOL, your numbers are way off — and the link you provide to SEOMOZ is off mark, too (the content you cite actually appears to be @, not @

    But even with these reservations, your point is well taken (and should be obvious to anyone who wasn’t born yesterday — just as obvious as that there must be a concerted effort to criminalize some marketing buffoons for buzzword-speak)….

    IMHO, All of this hand-waving is really childish — if people don’t like what the people running are doing, then they should just leave. Are you going to commit “facebook suicide” too? I’m not for or against it — what Loren Feldman said a couple of weeks ago many of us knew many years ago (in case you think Loren Feldman is spam, I won’t provide a link to the data he uploaded to youtube; you can simply search on gootube for “101 – What Is Data?”).

    So if a half a billion people got suckered by signing up for facebook, how many people got suckered into having Google crap installed on their new computers and being tracked by Google every second of every minute of every day they are on the web? My guess is: probably twice that amount… SUCKERS!

    LOL !!!


    😀 nmw

  9. says

    Haha. Spot on.

    What I don’t like is they use information I didn’t volunteer for this purpose. Amazon record your purchase, yes, but you chose to purchase things on Amazon.

    Google record your keywords, again, because you’re using Google.

    I put my interests on Facebook to let my friends know and see if they also like those things and want to talk or share about them – not for Facebook to steal the information and place it on sites I may never visit.

    I don’t care if they want to help me, not that I buy that reason – I didn’t give information to see it fly out to places unknown.

  10. moris says

    Facebook has been helpfully alerting people to their privacy settings for years. If you deactivate and choose “privacy concern” as your reason, they point to a link that explains how to set up your profile to match your desired level of privacy. Perfect.

    Except they’re lying, and will in all likelihood change all those carefully chosen settings to default with their next update, just like they did last time.

    It’s not that it’s hard to configure your privacy settings. It’s easy. It’s just that it doesn’t actually work.

    I used to think that it was because Zuckerberg et al were evil and just wanted to use the updates as an excuse to change everyone’s settings.

    But maybe those changes aren’t purposeful at all. Maybe they really are truly sincere beautiful people, but — at the same time — utterly incompetent coders.

  11. says

    I reluctantly joined Facebook because my family who lives 13,000 miles from where I do touted it as a way to keep in touch. I want what I say to be seen by only my immediate family – not people like exes and other parts of my extended family I might be on different terms with – not necessarily bad terms – just different. But I have to think of all these people whenever I post anything because it is constantly suggesting I make them friends and I never know when it will go ahead and start making my posts visible to them. And it isn’t just a matter of voting with my feet – I want to leave but it means cutting myself off from family. So I post carefully. I am trying to develop a new Facebook persona – phony but funny.

  12. WebshoppeSolutions says

    Brilliant .. Absolutely brilliant.

    I see that you have managed to put into words, that, which many of us were already thining ..

  13. says

    It seems to me that marketing and PR can often leap the fence of truth, and it looks like that was the case with Facebook. I think there are many things that Facebook can say that are positive about their business, and that’s reflected in its popularity. Still, if I was Facebook I’d focus on the truth rather than making big statements.

  14. says

    Freekin brilliant, I had not seen the facebook statement (like most users) The sheer audacity of facebook is just an extension of “the guy ” who owns it. “Thee gift” is bestowed by us upon them…
    To “return” facebooks gift back to them “delete account” might eventually make the kid who owns it realize..There is consequence to actions/attitude. My facebook page now contains the factual information about me according to Lewis Carroll …I suggest to all who want to get the “free” gift. Thanks.