Closed Networks & the Problem With Facebook

This month’s edition of Web Law Connected could be seen as a bit of a rant, but the honest intent here is to explore the underlying marketing value offered to lawyers by what has become the 800-pound gorilla of social networks – Facebook.

It’s difficult to refute the fact that Facebook is the fastest growing entity on the web today, and the adoption rate within the legal community has been no different than that of any other group within the Facebook walls – it’s expanding, and fast. While some law firms are guarding business productivity by blocking access, we’ve also observed firms who see this latest gathering spot as an opportunity to expand their online presence. It should be noted, anytime we find legitimate communities and discussion on the web, the chances are good that individuals looking for business development opportunities will soon follow.

However, the bigger issue for me goes beyond the website blocking debate, or whether there is a legitimate business community here that can be marketed to. But rather, if we compare the relative value of Facebook to all the varying forms of web marketing out there, is it a good use of a lawyer’s online marketing time?

After a lot of consideration, and my opinion wavering, I’ve concluded that Facebook is a low quality marketing investment. And above all the positive aspects this service offers, the deciding negative factor was the closed nature of its network.

Similar to AOL or Compuserve back in the late-80’s early-90’s, Facebook is a closed community that prevents connection to the outside Internet. Original content placed within the Facebook system not only ceases to be yours, but sits behind a membership wall, and cannot be found by non-members or indexed by the search engines.

That’s ok for the individual seeking to protect their personal privacy, but quite another for lawyers looking to extend the reach of their marketing efforts. From my perspective, the big selling points of online marketing are the ability to extend the reach of your written content, build a permanent body of work that represents your practice, and make the pieces work together.

Unfortunately, with Facebook that philosophy is completely out the window. And I refuse to treat Facebook as a separate sub-Internet that must somehow be marketed to individually. The rationale simply isn’t there. Why build up a body of professional work (articles, commentary, interactions) that no one will see outside of your Facebook friends?

It’s this distinct lack of control over content exposure that dooms Facebook to failure as a primary marketing tool. And just like back in the days of AOL & Prodigy, that closed access philosophy is a difficult sell up against the innovation of the larger Internet. With a history that spans less than 15 years, you’d think the lessons of previously failed web-businesses would be painfully familiar. I continue to question why this time should be any different.

Now, I don’t think we should discount Facebook entirely. I’m pretty confident the audiences and marketing prospects are legitimate. It could also be said that Facebook attracts those who may not be engaging the web otherwise. The lowest common denominator perhaps? :)

Tactics wise, I see nothing wrong with establishing a profile, and I still like the concept of feeding content from other sources into Facebook. But that’s where I am personally drawing the line. Maintaining a presence in Facebook is not time intensive, and if it yields a couple new contacts annually, that’s worth 15 minutes of my time. After that though, things are up for questioning.

Facebook vs. Everybody Else

Another aspect I think a lot of people miss about Facebook, and this is a definite critique, is that they don’t play nice with anyone else on the web. While importing and feeding content into their system is perfectly fine, pulling original content or contacts out of Facebook can get your account terminated. See Robert Scoble’s temporary Facebook suspension as an example. And do note, if you or I had done the same thing, our accounts probably would not have been reinstated, and our time invested in creating content within the Facebook system would be lost forever – notes, statuses, forum discussions, in-system email – poof! Gone.

The Lessons for Lawyers?

I’m a big believer that online marketing efforts, especially relating to content creation, should be done predominantly on a lawyer- or firm-owned web property. Not doing so can put your marketing investment at risk. A much healthier relationship with Facebook would be to use it as a final content destination rather than a tool of creation.

It’s ok to loosen up your vision of content control, commenting on other people’s blogs for example, but when it comes to closed networks like Facebook – it’s buyer beware. If you’re not prepared to lose everything you’ve written, write it in a personal blog post and import it into your account (see the feed importing link above).

I would also strongly advise managing online relationships with more than one tool! There are lots of alternatives that can easily export and import contacts. Everyone should learn to do this anyway – even if you’re taking a CSV export of your Outlook or Exchange – having backups are a must.

Finally, the thing that drives me completely batty about Facebook is that it’s counter to everything the web is about. The Internet is a level playing ground unlike anything the world has ever seen – at least until someone tries to own it! Personal data control, privacy, intrusive advertising. The issues are all there for Facebook, and not unlike AOL before it.

I’m not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last… I think we’re going to see a Facebook backlash in 2008.


  1. Well said, Steve. Facebook is social networking on training wheels — it’s the first massively popular use of a technology that someday will be far more powerful and virtually ubiquitous. I like to think of it as the Atari or Colecovision of social networking — stack up Pong against Halo 3 on your Playstation, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how primitive Facebook will appear in 20 years’ time.

    I couldn’t agree more that Facebook is a lousy marketing outlet for lawyers, and its closed nature is a major reason why. But I would also emphasize that the Facebook audience is of very little use to most lawyers who seek clients beyond teenagers and Scrabble fanatics. You could argue that if a number of your clients are already on Facebook, you could set up a Group and invite them to join you for updates on various legal points, or to feed in your blog posts — this would be a sensible example of marketing to your existing client base. But how many lawyers’ clients are hanging out on Facebook? Not too many.

    Worse, the Facebook audience isn’t growing up — it’s not evolving upwards. I’m getting just as many Zombie and Movie Likeness Quiz invitations as ever (okay, maybe fewer, because I studiously ignore all the ones I get). Facebook is not investing in the kinds of upgraded applications that would encourage a more discerning or sophisticated membership — it’s still a “social network” first and foremost. Eventually, there will be successful “professional networks” for various professions — Legal OnRamp is a very promising start.

    But at the end of the day, it all comes down to: what is your target audience, and where can you find them in a receptive mood? There will be an answer someday that involves online networks, but Facebook isn’t it.

  2. Steve, you hit dead-on how I feel about Facebook. People will find that surprising if they know me on Facebook because it appears that I am quite active. But, I only poke my nose in there for a few minutes a couple times a week to see what folks are up to.

    One thing I recognize, however, is that it is popular with some people, especially those who have not previously discovered the power of online social networking tools. And in this regard, I believe it to be a legitimate way for newly graduated lawyers to keep in touch with their classmates. And definitely one source of future work is their friends from their school days.

    It may not be worthwhile as part of an overall firm-wide web strategy, but on an individual basis it may be an important way for young lawyers to stay in touch with their communities. Also, some communities are using Facebook as an event management system, setting information about events and RSVPs inside the system. For these two reasons blocking of Facebook could be reducing opportunities for certain people.

    I’m not a fan of Facebook, but we do have to recognize it is a tool that is being used on a wide-spread basis and therefore cannot be completely discounted.

  3. Steve –

    I would not be so quick to dismiss Facebook. It certainly has its limitations. By opening its platform, Facebook allows you to funnel lots of content into Facebook, even though the content lives elsewhere. For example, my blog posts get pushed out to my Facebook friends. Through Shelfari, the books I am reading are pushed out to my friends in Facebook.

    The real problem with using Facebook for marketing is that our clients are not using Facebook. Any network application is only as good as the members of the network.

    My firm is starting to use Facebook as a recruiting tool. Last summer our summer associates created their own Facebook group.

    To me Facebook is another place that I can share information about myself in an informal manner. I agree that it is not a great place to spend lots of time and marketing resources. But it is a great place to paint a fuller picture of yourself.

  4. Help! Facebook has disabled my account accusing me of using a fake name. They don’t know that Nacho is the nickname for Ignacio!

  5. Facebook doesn’t like nicknames, so you may have to go with Ignacio.

    Nicknames & Facebook
    Facebook User Banned for Using Nickname Instead of Real Name

    They are trying to distinguish themselves from MySpace, where a lot of fake accounts were created in the past.

  6. If your clients include a younger demographic, you have to be on Facebook. I represent entrepreneurs and internet startups. I have to be on Facebook. True, it’s closed…but not to people already on Facebook.

    A client of mine in LA in the film industry was recently told by a hiring producer that ‘they thought he was a little out of touch…he was the only applicant for the job who was not on Facebook.’

  7. Help!Facebokk has disabled my account saying that I wasn’t on the good network. I tried to change it but it didn’t work. I don’t know what to do!

  8. Celia, from the Facebook help pages:

    Please contact us at from the email address associated with your disabled account with a brief description of your issue.