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Just in time for the Fourth of July, Facebook blocked me from commenting on wall posts over the weekend. Way to exemplify the whole "freedom from tyranny" theme, guys! Alas, Facebook's not the only company, public or private, to fall prey to bad customer policies that fly in the face of its supposed business model. Unless they enjoy being told to shut up, investors need to avoid such companies like the plague.
You just keep babbling on and on
Apparently, I hit some undisclosed limit of how many comments one can make on Facebook within a certain period of time. Facebook said it warned me that I was about to hit this limit, but unlike the bajillion other things the site emails me about, I never noticed any such alert.
Last I heard, Facebook's whole point is to addict users, in the hopes they'll visit its site regularly and hang out for a while each time they stop by. This boosts Facebook's traffic, and increases the odds that each visitor will see -- and click on -- advertisers' messages.
In that light, does Facebook really want visitors worrying about hitting some arbitrary limit for saying too much? Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) never admonished me for using Gmail as a chat client. (Look, I type fast.) Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) never told me I listened to "Mexican Radio" one too many times. ("Your back-button privileges on your iPod have been suspended. Weirdo.") Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) -- despite allegations that it "throttles" shipments to users who try to swap out rented movies too frequently -- has never broken the news to me that I have way too many movies in my queue, nor reminded me that I probably won't be able to watch them all if I live to be 100.
Gag orders aren't good business
To protest my digital muzzling, I've been using Facebook's own tools to give it a piece of my mind. Lots of sympathetic friends have noted the irony in a social network site clamping down on communication, and a few have suggested moving back to News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS ) MySpace. I'm betting that's exactly the sort of word-of-mouth Facebook would prefer not to foment.
Telling customers to shut up, and thus encouraging them to abandon you for rivals or upstarts, is stupid business indeed. That's particularly true in social networking, where digital mobs tend to jump easily from a former king to the next hot thing -- and never look back. (Just ask Friendster or the ailing MySpace.) In any business, it's a good way for companies to quickly lose competitive advantage, and it should serve as a great big red flag for investors.
Look at how eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) angered power sellers who were once loyal and obsessed with its service. (Facebook, am I a "power commenter"? And if so, isn't that mostly a good thing?) Alternately, consider how Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) clumsy efforts to transform AOL from a self-contained service into an open Web community ultimately torpedoed customer satisfaction.
Now that I've said my piece, I'll do what Facebook didn't -- encourage you to speak your minds, too. Feel free to use the comment box below to discuss companies whose customer-silencing habits might hurt their long-term performance. And if you'd rather just tell me to shut up, be my guest. At this point, I'm getting used to it.
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