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Facebook buys Amway

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Just kidding. The whole Facebook/Amway thing is just a metaphor.

Years ago, I was at a large family gathering, and my second cousin George was there. I always liked George, and I wouldn’t have minded getting to know him better, but in those days he sold Amway--at family gatherings. This particular gathering was at our house, and George took the opportunity presented by a quiet moment in the conversation to observe that, because our windows faced west, the setting sun brilliantly highlighted every streak and smear. My wife was not pleased, but George--ever helpful--was quick to point out that Amway had a product that would make those windows so clean small children would walk right into them. To me, it was a little creepy not knowing whether I was a loving relation or a targeted prospect.

This memory has been haunting me recently, as I watch my friends and colleagues frolicking in the lake (quicksand?) that is Facebook. Don’t get me wrong. I like Facebook (no pun intended). I use it, and I’m grateful that I can use it without having to spend any money. But that doesn’t mean it’s not costing me anything.

While Facebook helps me interact with friends, family and acquaintances that I might otherwise lose contact with, it’s also a money-making venture. That combination of social and commercial is clearly an opportunity from a business perspective, but the way Facebook has been dealing with it—or more accurately, not really dealing with it--has a tendency to push the brand into the same emotional territory occupied by Amway salespeople.

I’ve got nothing against Amway products, but the brand has a kind of social Trojan Horse quality about it that makes me uncomfortable. I have this sense that Amway salespeople, like my cousin George, are using social interactions in order to make money. Because they are.

Facebook’s story problem is that the brand lives right at the heart of the social/commercial struggle, but it acts as if the two realms live comfortably together. I know they don’t. Brands often downplay inherent struggles that they feel are unflattering. That’s a mistake because, at best, it will make the brand feel inauthentic, and at worst, it will make it seem like the brand has something to hide. Facebook is a social site, and it doesn’t want me worrying about how the commercial stuff impacts the social stuff. But downplaying that conflict only makes me more apprehensive.

If Facebook were my friend (no pun intended), I would tell it, "Hey Facebook, embrace the struggle between social and commercial and own it, not just because then you could be more upfront with me about what’s going on but also because conflict is the engine that powers every great story. Conflict is an asset--quite possibly any brand’s most valuable and effective asset when it’s trying to establish, deepen and sustain an emotional relationship with its audience. I wrestle with the conflict between social and commercial myself, and I know it’s a thorny issue. That common struggle could be a point of connection between you and me."

I guess I’ll try posting that to my Facebook page and see what happens.

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