5 Journalists To Challenge Facebook, Twitter…Big Brother Style

On February 1st, five journalists will lock themselves in a farmhouse in the south of France to determine whether or not Facebook and Twitter are actually worth something.

Just kidding. With nearly 400 million combined users, Twitter and Facebook have proved their social power and established their longevity.

However, whether or not they can also serve as a reputable source of news remains to be seen. Twitter certainly functions as a rapid-fire newswire, and can also provide integral communications during times of disaster and distress, as demonstrated by recent events in Haiti. But is it reliable?

By organizing this Big Brother new media experiment, the RFP French-language public broadcasters association hopes to determine just that. They’ve rounded up five journalists–Benjamin Muller (France Info), Nour-Eddine Zidane (France Inter), Janic Tremblay (Première Chaîne de Radio-Canada), Anne-Paule Martin (RSR, Switzerland) and Nicolas Willems (RTBF, Belgium)–who have agreed to retreat into a farm house in France’s southern Perigord region for five days with data-less cell phones, computers with blank hard drives and access only to Facebook and Twitter. Their smart phones will be taken away. Web surfing, TV, radio and newspapers will be banned. You can track their progress on Twitter, though it looks as if it will help if you speak French.

The experiment sounds interesting. And deep down, I’m hoping someone will legally change their name to FacebookAndTwitterGuy. But ultimately, I wonder about its relevancy.

Let’s be honest: Facebook and Twitter do not exist in a world of isolated APIs and codes. If you’re on social networking services, you can probably also access other news sources to determine whether or not the latest tip on John Edwards is true. So why spend the time and money to lock these journalists on what sounds like a five-day vacation? Unless MTV steps in to provide some Jersey Shore drama, I’ll probably only be checking in for a 140-character summary.

Facebook Takes on Haiti Relief

In the largest effort to date to provide information on a major news event, Facebook has tried to mobilize users–often derided as “slacktivists“–to focus on Haiti relief efforts and has gotten some star power to help out.

Through its Global Disaster Relief fanpage, Facebook has spent the last week creating a portal of information on the Haiti disaster and recruited former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to make videos that specifically mentioned Facebook’s efforts.  The videos are classic Bill and George, but the real coup may have been in getting them to specifically mention Facebook’s efforts as they talked about the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton/Bush Haiti Fund.

While the company is not disclosing how many hits/impressions the videos and fan page is getting, Facebook’s Andrew Noyes told Mediaite that “we’ve heard numerous reports from media, nonprofits and individual users about how Facebook has been a lifeline for the relief effort over the past week.” The effort is a coordination between Facebook’s new Washington, D.C. office and people at Facebook HQ in Palo Alto, Calif.

In the week since the first earthquake, the fan page has gained over 146,500 fans and continues to add thousands a day. Two other related fan pages–for Clinton and for the Clinton/Bush Haiti Fund–have over 283,770 fans and 13,500 fans respectively. While the fan page is not meant to be a fundraising tool, the tool Causes has raised over $400,000 for a number of non-profits doing disaster relief in Haiti, including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, World Vision, Friends of the UN World Food Program, Compassion International, CARE and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.

In addition to the former presidents, Facebook has also worked with Download to Donate for Haiti and uploaded a video by the band Linkin Park and Noyes, who heads public policy communications in Washington, D.C., says more videos are expected.  While the current efforts are focused on in Haiti, Noyes said that the fan page would remain active and used for the company’s future efforts as other global disasters occur. 

The uncertainty in any effort like this is whether providing information to people through Facebook or some other social media will result in action or greater education.  As Denis Hurley said last week in a Mediaite column, “[a] common criticism of Facebook is that the information shared is little more than a link to a cat playing a keyboard, but as we’ve seen these past few days, it can also be put to good use.”

Facebook has tapped into the power of its 350 million active users by directing attention to global relief, a significant evolution in Facebook’s mission.  While the fan page numbers may seem like a drop in the bucket, Facebook’s messaging tends to be viral and information doesn’t stay limited to just members of fan pages.



Feds to Facebook Privacy Critics: Let’s Talk

walken hopperMeaningful? Or meaningless? You make the call: The Federal Trade Commission has told the group that filed a grievance about Facebook’s recent privacy changes that its “complaint raises issues of particular interest at this time.”

And that means? Hard to say.

In a letter (pdf) to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, David Vladeck, the FTC’s director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, says his agency would be happy to talk to EPIC about its concerns. But that’s about all he’s promising for now.

Just as important, Vladeck points out that he can’t and won’t say whether the FTC is formally investigating EPIC’s complaint: “Please be advised, however, that any Commission investigation is non-public until the Commission decides to issue a formal complaint or investigation. As a result, we can neither confirm nor deny that we are conducting an investigation of the issues raised by your complaint.”

So there you go. Either the Feds are taking this very seriously or they’re not.

As I’ve said before, Facebook may face some regulatory blowback for its privacy overhaul–otherwise known as the “please share as much of yourself as you can” campaign–in the U.S., and more likely, in Europe. But unless the social networking service starts hearing from  advertisers, I’m not sure how much farther this goes.

Another Big Bet on Mobile Payments: Boku Raises $25 Million

bokuIs there big money in mobile payments–systems that let people buy stuff using their phones, charging purchases to their wireless bills? Not yet, perhaps. But investors are betting there will be.

Latest example: Boku, a mobile payment start-up that raised $13 million last June, has added another $25 million via a C round led by DAG Ventures. Benchmark Capital, Index Ventures and Khosla Ventures are all re-upping.

For now, Boku and competitors like Zong are focused on letting people use their phones to buy “virtual goods,” primarily on social games run by the likes of Zynga, Playdom, and Playfish from Electronic Arts (ERTS).

But even if you believe that the virtual goods business is not going the way of Pet Rocks, it is going to be somewhat limited–the most obvious users for this stuff are kids who don’t have their own credits cards–and competition will ratchet up if Facebook decides to finally offer its own payment platform, which seems very likely.

But the amount of money the start-ups are raising indicates that they have much bigger ambitions. They want to turn your phone into a payment system for “real” stuff. Easy enough to see how you could extend this to other digital purchases, like music, video, etc., but there’s no reason you couldn’t buy physical goods this way.

Could happen, too. Though we’ve been hearing about that scenario for more than a decade, and it hasn’t taken off yet.

One near-term obstacle, at least in the U.S., is carrier fees–AT&T (T), Sprint (S) et al generally take up to 50 percent of each transaction that happens on their networks. If the mobile payment business is going to go up, those numbers need to come down.