Facebook lays a PR egg

I’ve had a Facebook profile since June (or was it July?) 2005, almost six years. When I joined, it was still novel, still just for university students and still largely text-only. The Farmville scourge was a speck of cosmic dust. If I recall, it was “the Xanga replacement,” and a way to keep tabs on where people were going to school and who was dating whom.

I still use Facebook daily, but it’s become much more of a grind and more about habit than enjoyment. Like many people, I’m wary of its business practices and how it handles privacy, but I also recognize its power of sheer numbers and organizational heft.

Even now, as it’s arguably in a moral decline, Facebook is nigh unrivaled. That makes the following story so baffling.

A Search Engine Watch story earlier today described how a guy named Michael Lee Johnson took out a Facebook ad, calling for Google+ followers. Shortly thereafter, his ad account was disabled and he received a note from Facebook citing vague violations of the site’s Terms of Use policy, but with no concrete explanation.

It’s true that Facebook’s policy mentions banning or disabling competitors’ ads, and on the surface, it seems reasonable. Many news sites, for example, ban links to competing sites in their comment sections. Upon examination, though, it was truly a dumb-as-rocks decision.

1. It had the opposite effect of what was intended. If the site had left it alone, Johnson’s probably would have been just another random, slightly distracting side ad. Facebook ceded the narrative when it axed the ad. Johnson likely gained more Google+ followers through publicizing the suspension than he would have if the ad had remained up.

2. Facebook showed its cards. The company has put up a public face of indifference and wry amusement in the wake of Google+. And frankly, publicly, that was probably appropriate. Even with a boom up to about 10 million members (a rough, unofficial approximation), Google+ still only has a little more than 1 percent of Facebook’s worldwide numbers. But in banning an ad for Google+ followers (not even a Google-bought ad), Facebook looks caught in the headlights and rattled.

3. Whatever merit the “competitors’ ads” argument has, I have a hard time believing that Johnson’s ad is any more ridiculous than ads for weight-loss pills, marriage counseling, divorce lawyers and numerous others I’ve seen. The company looks downright draconian and petty. Bratty, even.

4. Fortification solves nothing. Competitors often must cross paths and even share development and ideas. Without competition, there’s no innovation, no motivation to learn and get better. Apart from being a baffling move in public relations, it’s also a blown opportunity to learn more about an emerging player.

I added Johnson on Google+ as soon as I read about his ad. And you know what?

Dude’s pretty entertaining.

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