On Thursday, visitors to the annual outdoor holiday market in New York City’s Bryant Park could choose between such merry activities as going ice-skating, buying seasonal snacks, shopping for gifts—or visiting Facebook’s wood-paneled pop-up for a refresher on their privacy settings.
The past few months have seen scandal after scandal at the company, and it knows its image has suffered. So obviously, the solution was to host a one-day-only holiday pop-up in the middle of Manhattan. “We’re a feedback-driven culture, and the feedback from consumers has been, especially in 2018, that they need to hear more from us,” said Nick White, a Facebook spokesman manning the trailer. As a song from Ariana Grande’s Christmas album played, White said that he’d already heard some “tough questions.” When Facebook opens itself up to the public, he said, “it’s not always going to be pretty, but it’s always going to be informative.”
“We’re here to talk,” proclaimed a sign near the door, printed on wood to match the shelves lining the trailer. About a dozen Facebook staffers, in casual gray fleeces, stood poised to walk visitors through their privacy settings and hand out pamphlets with “tips & tricks.” (Sample tip: “Do not accept invitations from people you don’t know.”) Colorful signage reminded visitors “You can control the kinds of ads you see,” and “No, Facebook does not sell data to advertisers”—along with more generic messages like “Be bold.”
Pop-up shops have become trendy in New York in recent years, especially among online-native consumer brands. In lieu of any physical product to sell, Facebook’s pop-up gave away hot chocolate. The cocoa station in the corner naturally also had on hand a jar of marshmallows shaped like Facebook Fs.
In the half-hour or so I spent in the trailer, Facebook employees outnumbered visitors, and staffers were quick to ask anyone who wandered in if they wouldn’t mind appearing on camera—a video camera was standing by, ready to record positive testimonials. The operation’s PR machinations were not subtle.
Still, Facebook knows what it’s doing: It’s hard to resist free hot chocolate in December. That’s why Corin Jenion and Josh Bowe, who are visiting New York from England, decided to stop by. Jenion also happened to have a problem she needed help with: “My Facebook was actually hacked. I tracked the IP address back to somebody in the Philippines,” she said. She spoke to an employee and hopes Facebook will be able to help—especially since, locked out of her account, she hadn’t figured out how to contact the company and report it otherwise.
Bowe was happy to sip hot chocolate, but didn’t think the visit would affect his overall opinion of the company: “I’d say Facebook are good at marketing themselves with things like this,” Bowe said. “Would it change my views on their security? Probably not.”
Another visitor, Katie Murphy of New York, walked by the pop-up and decided to ask a question that had come up when she tried to use Facebook Marketplace recently. She was waiting around while an employee sought out an answer. “It’s nice to have one-on-one interaction with the people behind it,” she said.
It struck me that visitors I talked to had come with individual tech support questions, not grander questions about Facebook’s malfeasance. For all the angry backlash, for many of Facebook’s 2 billion users, the controversies may be a blip. “We saw the Facebook logo and we thought we’d check what it was about,” said G.K. Singh, an Australian student who was visiting with a friend, Ray Butler. As students, they feel like they’re pretty savvy about privacy stuff. “I’m not too concerned overall,” Butler said.
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