5-Year-Old Facebook's 4 Toughest Lessons

Lots of businesses are copying what Facebook has done right. But with social media becoming an increasingly important part of every businesses strategy, there is also plenty to be learned from Facebook's blunders. The mega-social networking site has done far more right than wrong—amassing 175 million users in about the time it takes most companies to wake up in the morning—but in honor of the popular social network's fifth birthday earlier this month, we put together a list of the 4 biggest Facebook blunders of the past 5 years.

September 2006: The News Feed Debacle.


When Facebook introduced a feature that automatically notifies your friends every time you throw a sheep at someone—or do just about anything else—no one had a choice about what or how much would be shown. The membership revolted by signing online petitions and joining anti-News Feed groups. Facebook responded by apologizing and developing a way to turn off the tracking feature, or control which people see the updates.

Lesson learned: Don't force people to share information. Yes, even if they are over-sharing to begin with.

November 2007: Oops, We Did It Again.
Beacon_exampleThe following year Facebook launched Beacon, an advertising program that gathered information about members' spending habits on other sites. Once people realized their every book purchase and streaming video view was being broadcast to their friends, they were outraged. It took Facebook nearly a month to admit Beacon was a mistake. "We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. The company also tweaked the alert feature, making it opt-in instead of opt-out by default, and gave users the choice of turning off Beacon completely. Which nearly everyone did.

Lesson learned: Act quickly—don’t wait a month to respond to public outrage.

December 2008: Nipplegate.

No, not Janet Jackson’s "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. We’re talking about the time Facebook removed "indecent" photos of breastfeeding moms from the site. Soon, about 11,000 lactating protesters held a virtual nurse-in by uploading nursing photos onto their profiles. A reported 20 women actually showed up at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, CA, to breast-feed in person. Facebook responded, saying the pics violated the company's terms of use. To be fair, several media sites, magazines and T.V. channels also draw the line at exposed areolas.

Lesson learned: Clearly communicate your codes of conduct and definitions of "obscene" content. Especially with new moms.

February 2009: Nevermind, We Don't Own You.
FB_BillofRights(TermsofService)In early February, Facebook quietly changed its terms of service to allow the company to "retain archived copies" of user content, meaning messages, photos and anything else sent to friends would stay on the site even after a user deactivates his or her account. But after the blog Consumerist caught wind of the change, members protested, and Facebook reverted to its original terms. The company is now trying to make amends by letting users help craft the company's new terms via a newly-formed group called Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

Lesson (hopefully) learned: Instead of back-peddling each time the public protests, try getting input from your users from the get-go.

Add New Comment


  • David Feinstein

    I love this article and totally love Facebook...what a brilliant idea, concept and amazing place to make new friends, share ideas and find and network with like minded people.
    I'm new here to FastCompany and look forward to being "enlightened" with all the amazing contributing writers and information right here and right now....

    David L. Feinstein
    email: davidf@pbiworld.com

  • Catherine Schulmann

    If you have to learn from the mistakes of others, make those others successful, like Facebook!

  • Steve McDonald

    It's fantastic that teeth are being cut in the public space. This helps companies embrace these technologies internally with perspective on how they should be governed and what works and what doesn't. You don't see it on Facebook, but enterprise application of these concepts are changing the face of organizations who's greatest assets are its people. I have reservations about companies sharing IP on public systems like FB, but there is not reason FB couldn't create Private Cloud iterations of their offering for business. IBM and Microsoft are well on their way to capturing marketshare around this space with products like Lotus Connections and the personal spaces in Sharepoint. These tools are also starting to federate with Facebook and LinkedIN. They offer the security of internal systems and IT governance with the ability to integrate with external systems like Facebooka and LinkedIN.

  • Ankit Kapasi

    Each of these issues is related to one particular area that most all social networks have overlooked during their growth. This issue is information security/privacy. Facebook has not thought through the IS/privacy impacts of each their features through thoroughly enough. Unfortunately they believe that adopting a policy is enough. They must integrate security/privacy into their culture. Once it has done that it will make giant strides. I have notified the company of these issues in the past, but they have never responded. This is an issue for the entire industry, not just Facebook.

  • Richard Lipscombe

    Facebook has just one lesson to learn from its woefully mismanagement of its evolving business model. LESSON 101 - Learn that for any digital business model to work it must generate passive income and be completely separate from the "free" offering. Facebook has a huge asset in Facebook Question (FQ) as everyone saw with the prototype used at Davos 09. This is a collaboration business tool not a social networking or social media ad on and it must be developed and used that way. Facebook must get some "outside help" if it is turn FQ into the business and cashflow success it can and should become.