Just when you thought you had that 12:01 a.m. Saturday deadline figured out for this weekend’s big switch from analog to digital television, along comes another form of midnight madness to worry about — that is, if you want to make it easier for Facebook friends to reach you, or have a brand you want to protect from the dark side of social media.
Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday morning, Facebook will allow registration for customized URLs (example: facebook.com/YourNameHere), instead of the usual long list of numbers that show up as a Web address for a profile. The world’s largest social media network began sending out notices for the process on Wednesday, including a link for registered trademark brand owners to place their names on a restricted list, in the hope of avoiding the cybersquatting phenomenon that has long plagued the Internet domain name process.
The advantages are obvious: an easier way for users to track down their friends — or their favorite companies — on Facebook. It also gives those companies a shot at ranking higher on a Google search.
However, given complaints from its members regarding past terms-of-service changes, is Facebook ready to get into the domain name business? Can it truly protect trademark owners from seeing their intellectual property pilfered by those who would grab a username, only to sell it back to its legitimate owner? Can Facebook’s servers handle what may turn out to be a midnight crush?
Facebook did not respond to requests for comments by press time, but previously published reports quote company spokespersons as saying they should have enough backup server power available. However, one social media expert is skeptical.
“I think we’re going to see a flurry of squatters trying to rip apart Facebook,” Lon Safko, hardware/software entrepreneur, intellectual property owner and author of The Social Media Bible, told TechNewsWorld. “They’re going to try to reserve a lot of names. It’ll be blue-light specials at midnight, and don’t be surprised if the servers … go down.”
Facebook’s motive for offering up vanity URLs, according to Safko: Even though MySpace and Twitter already offer up customized addresses, Facebook’s enormous population — 200 million active users — gives the network much more appeal with businesses and represents a viable future revenue opportunity.
“It could be that they’re trying to spike memberships. They’ve been growing really fast, trouncing MySpace and getting a lot of press. It’s a really good free perk.” When it comes to companies, “I think Facebook is starting to recognize the value of companies, because companies have been taking advantage of it all along. If they can entice people and companies into trying to brand themselves on it, the advertising opportunities down the road are significant.”
There’s also potential for related advertising on profile pages with customized URLs, according to IDC analyst Caroline Dangson. Facebook will have to rely on that, since the company probably can’t get away with charging down the line for vanity usernames, she said. So the value right now for Facebook with all this: better search within Facebook and a stronger overall connection.
“It gives you the sense that you’ve really got your own page now,” Dangson told TechNewsWorld. “You didn’t think of it in terms of the domain name before, because it was ugly. You had a space on Facebook, but now it’s giving you a sense of greater ownership, potentially.”
The prospect of better search results also cements the network/member relationship, she said, because it helps “people connect with even more people, which creates stickiness.”
Intellectual Property Protection
Did Facebook give everyone enough advance notice about the process?
“I think they’re doing a pretty good job,” Safko said. “The cool thing about social media is no matter who you are, they’re going to get to you one way or another. I found out by seeing it on the Tweet Stream. The social media ecosphere would have broadcasted it anyway.”
Not everyone agrees. Companies really needed extra time to digest the brand ramifications of Facebook’s offer, opined Ernest Grumbles III, intellectual property attorney with Merchant & Gould.
“They’ve created an unnecessarily mad scramble by giving four days notice,” Grumbles told TechNewsWorld. “We’re an intellectual property firm that is brand sensitive, and we were putting the word out to our clients. The time period is too short. I like the idea of giving brand owners a heads-up, an early start, but it should have been a couple of weeks minimum. It takes at least a week to filter down to people.”
Facebook did take into account possible abuses and does have a system in place for rescinding usernames if original owners complain, said Grumbles.
However, as is always the case with the Internet and the law, possible problems could still arise. For example: If a fan page wants to use a company’s brand name in its domain, will it be allowed?
“They may create some type of conflict with rights of fair use,” said Grumbles. “Is there going to be differentiation between [usernames regarding] people, pages, groups, events? It’s going to be interesting to see how they apply that trademark policy.”