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 (wordpress.com, for example, is a root domain that hosts millions of other web sites within it like aresohappy.wordpress.com)

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.