The Difference Between Broadcasting and Tracking (or What Facebook Still Hasn’t Learned about Personal Data)

Last week at f8, Facebook announced a whole bunch of new features (and had a raging party to celebrate.)

However, missing from the ensuring press love was more context and thinking around the most dangerous new feature: Activity Broadcasting

For background, Activity Broadcasting (as it is today) is exceptionally similar to the failed experiment called Beacon which publicly shared all your data from launch partners such as Netflix.

While, the press loves this (and the many other new features) today – the re-releasing of this feature (in an almost identical manner) demonstrates how Facebook still hasn’t learned the key difference in how people think about and want to use their data.

In the simplest form, this difference is represented in the delta between:

  • Tracking, and
  • Broadcasting

For those who have read my blog before, I love to track my personal data.  I think its awesome to look back at my old check-ins, to track my activity levels week over week, and even watch my sleep patterns.

For me, the same body chemistry shifts via nostalgia that drive photo taking and sharing drive my personal tracking (be it via Foursquare, Fitbit, Zeo, or others) – I love the feeling of remembering and looking back. (And would argue that many others are driven by the same internal motivations.)

This same motivation has driven the growth of services like Foursquare and Seven Years Ago, MorningPics, and OhLife that enable users to easily see their old tracked personal data – be it check-ins, photos, or diary entries.

Sometimes I like to share that data with others.  This includes Instagraming photos on Tumblr, tweeting about my steps for the week on Twitter, or even broadcasting my current favorite track on Facebook.

This is driven by my desire to be social – its not about the nostalgia I feel for remembering later (or the possible utility driven by recommendations from mountains of data) – its because I feel good now and want to share that with others that I care about (Yes – even all my Twitter followers I haven’t met yet.)

The new Facebook integrations of Activity Sharing (and its use vis a vis Timelines) entirely misses the boat on thinking about any of these inherent human emotional motivators – rather deciding for me that I want to publicly broadcast my life for all to see.


Think about the success of Myspace and Tumblr – driven by enabling people to control their external image and how they represent themselves to the world.  Similarly, LinkedIn and Twitter let people express themselves in a professional manner (again heavily curated for my audience and by what I want to share.)

Timelines (and the activity Feed) throw the concept of self curation and personal identity out the window and force people to put themselves completely public as one single identity (which we’ve discussed before is just not how people exist.)

My caveat here is that I think its exceptionally valuable to passively track tons of data about people (see my post here about how people lie without even knowing) – because users want to be able to look back later (privately) and remember the older versions of themselves and also encourage services that make better recommendations based on my previous choices (see Hunch.)

However, taking that data and making it public entirely misses the point of why people care about tracking (and just demonstrates that Facebook still hasn’t learned their lesson about the nuanced differences between tracking and broadcasting.)


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I work for True Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund with offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto. We partner with promising entrepreneurs at the earliest stages in the technology market providing hands-on management support to guide our portfolio companies through the challenges of early growth.