In the first meeting, the word "creepy" was only mentioned once in two hours. In the second meeting, the word "creepy" defined the conversation.
Just two weeks after Facebook launched a web-bending bevy of new social features at its April f8 conference, eight engineers and product managers from Thefind.com grouped around a long, pale wooden table in an unadorned conference room in an office in a downtown Mountain View strip mall. The room smelled like cat food. Screenshots of a Facebook login page were projected onto a whiteboard.
Thefind, a popular and profitable shopping search engine that indexes 400 million products - more than any other company, including Google - wanted to tap into Facebook. In a big way.
The idea had been in the works at the company for months, but in April, Facebook debuted new tools intended to put itself at the heart of the internet - the "Like" button and instant personalisation plug-ins - and Thefind was hungry to turn its users into repeat, signed-in users with personalised results.
Ron Levi, the company's vice president for product and brand, led the April 27 meeting to get, in his words, a "consensus on features". With close-cropped hair and thick-rimmed black glasses, Levi led the meeting in a fashion not unlike a camp counsellor - talkative, yet unconfrontational, steering rather than directing.
The idea was simple enough: Convince users to sign in with their Facebook logins, get permission to look deeply at their profiles and then figure out what stores and brands they liked. Then Thefind would use those insights to create personalised search results.
It wasn't a small undertaking. Thefind sees 17 million unique visitors a month.
"There are two camps," Levi told the group. "Make it as easy and automated as possible, even at the risk of misreading, or make it more explicit and make it harder to achieve personalisation."
After Facebook's announcements, Thefind's public relations crew invited Wired.com to come watch the company grapple with how or whether to integrate with Facebook. Everything was on the record.
The real question at the first meeting wasn't whether to tap into Facebook, but how much could be pulled off in two weeks.
Dhiraj Pardasani, a youngish looking Indian sat at the far end of the table. He was there to speak for the backend - the engineers who index 500,000 online and local stores and serve up the search results.
While outwardly placid, Pardasani sat through the meeting with the nervous look of an IT guy constantly evaluating how much of a strain each proposal from around the table would put on his servers and coders. He was hesitant about how well his team could serve personalised results that weren't paltry.
Meanwhile, the head of user interface, James Baicoianu - who looks as if he's equally comfortable with a 27kg pack on his back or a MacBook Pro in front of him - was headed out for a two-week, out-of-the-country holiday the day after the planned launch of the new features.
In short, it was a triage meeting, where features would be moving from "must have" to "would be nice if we have time" down to "for the next release".
Laurie Kahn, the director of products - an outdoorsy blond woman clad in fleece, projected the wireframes of the proposed login screen for Facebook users onto the wall.
Facebook now requires third-party sites to list each part of their profile the site wants access to. Thefind's list was long, from name, gender and date of birth to fan pages and even updates.
Thefind's problem seemed to be that the company wouldn't be able to offer enough personalisation immediately to make the bargain seem worth it to users, given the engineers only had a few more weeks.
"We need some minimum personalisation level to show them why to sign in," Levi said. "But if we ask for it all by default, it's a little creepy."
Across the table, Kahn blurted out, "It is creepy."
Everyone at the table laughed.
"It's going to be about whether they like Walmart or Etsy," Levi said. "It's not as creepy as it could be."
And with that, the C word disappeared.
The focus changed to what Baicoianu, whose holiday was imminent, could reasonably do before he left.
The meeting turned to how quickly the site could personalise when a user logs in through Facebook for the first time. The system would have to cross-check the data from Facebook against all 7000 stores that Thefind indexes.
That meant that to fully personalise the site, the pages that the user likes had to be run against a list of 7000 stores.
"How many friends and fans can a person have?" someone asked. The answer, quickly looked up online, was 5000.
Checking 5,000 possible candidates against a list of 7000 known stores couldn't happen instantly on login. That could be 35 million comparisons per user, which is a big number, no matter how well you optimise your algorithm.
The backend vice president looked freaked out as he contemplated the possible load on the servers. But Baicoianu reassured Pardasani that he had a solution that wouldn't tax the search-indexing team.
"When someone logs in, we will check against the top 200 stores," Baicoianu offered confidently. Then at a later time, another system running in the background would check the rest, beefing up the user's profile for the next time they visit.
Even better, Baicoianu added, is that the one-time Facebook login would grant permissions to get updates on a user in perpetuity. "In the future we would get notifications [when a user updates their page]and add it to their favourite or recently visited stores," Baicoianu said.
That ongoing notification and perpetual access would also help Thefind personalise more in the future as it adds even more Facebook pages for the 140,000 stores it indexes. For instance, at the time of the meeting, Thefind had the Facebook pages for 7000 stores, but by the time this story was published, that number had risen to 10,000.
At the end of the meeting, Levi talked about why the site was trying to use Facebook's information, rather than just asking users to choose their favourite stores.
"Do you build your own graph or use the mother of all graphs?" Levi asked, mostly rhetorically.
The answer seems pretty obvious.
Yelp and Pandora know the answer. Despite the fact those sites have loyal users who already make connections on their sites, the two were the banner companies for a new Facebook program called "Instant Personalisation".
When it debuted in April, the Facebook program automatically enrolled all opted Facebook users into a data-sharing agreement with those two companies. Show up at Yelp or Pandora now when you're already logged into Facebook (and for millions that's the first thing they do on the net), and the sites grab your Facebook data, showing you recommendations based on what your friends listen to or like to eat.
Levi wanted some of that power.
"We have lots of repeat visitors - close to half are. The goal is to turn repeat visitors into regular users. Right now, if a user returns, we don't know them any better."
With that, the more than two hours worth of non-stop meeting were over. Thefind's engineers hunkered down in their cubicles in a single big room that was eerily too quiet.
Social might be the order of business for Thefind, but standing on one side of the room, you couldn't see any employees, just a maze of grey cubicle walls and the barely perceptible sound of fingers on keyboards.
This reporter headed to the train station.
A little more than two weeks later, on May 15, Thefind pushed a new update to its users with the option to log in through Facebook.
But there was no mining of Facebook data. No combing through of the mother of all graphs. No instant personalised search results.
It wasn't a question of resources, however.
In two weeks, the media had turned on Facebook. "Creepy" was the new buzzword, paired with concerns over Facebook's privacy controls and default settings.
Moreover, Thefind had accidentally given full access to a reporter, who a week or so after the feature meeting, wrote a story entitled, "Facebook Has Gone Rogue: It's Time for an Open Alternative".
Though that post went up on a Friday, the zeitgeist found it and propelled it around the net. It was "Liked" on Facebook more than 20,000 times. It was by far the widest read story on Wired.com for the month.
But that was hardly the only story. Researchers kept finding security holes in the new Facebook features. Famous bloggers quit. The mainstream media, including CNN, NPR and the Wall Street Journal went into a Facebook privacy feeding frenzy. Facebook hunkered down, avoiding most interview requests. A group of four university students who proposed an open alternative racked up more than $US100,000 in small donations in just days.
Thefind took notice.
Just a few days after TheFind's feature release, this reporter met again, as originally planned, with Levi and Thefind's CEO Siva Kumar who were going to talk about what they'd learned from integrating the new features. Instead, our conversation was about why they didn't implement the new features.
This meeting came about a week before Mark Zuckerberg called the press in to Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto to announce simpler privacy controls in an attempt to engineer its way out of the privacy debacle it found itself in.
Kumar, Thefind's CEO and co-founder, is a gentle, soft-spoken man with quizzical eyebrows and impressively parted black hair, who likes to laugh at his own jokes.
He started Thefind after taking a break from an earlier startup and noticing how much his wife had to search around to buy something. He's a serial entrepreneur. Thefind is his eighth startup company, five of which he sold, the other three are still going. It's an amazing track record.
Thefind was ventured backed, with money from Bain Capital Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Redpoint Ventures.
Kumar wasn't freaked out. He hadn't called his board. He just knew it wasn't time.
"We know this path has peril," Kumar said, sitting across from this reporter at the same table where just weeks ago his team was ramping up to bet big on Facebook. Levi sat next to him, mostly quiet.
Thefind was proving to be markedly different from Facebook. Facebook, a company filled with young coders mostly fresh out of university, has a "deploy first, fix mistakes later" ethos. That hasn't changed despite fiascos like the Beacon feature that automatically announced on users' pages when they rented a movie from Blockbuster or bought things from online sites like Overstock.com. That move bought the company waves of bad publicity and a lawsuit eventually settled for $US10 million.
Facebook repeated the process with its newest social features this spring.
Some of Facebook's 1200 employees sit in beanbag chairs to do their work. In one of the massive open rooms, two coders sit under a green patio umbrella, perhaps to shade their monitors from a skylight.
By contrast, Thefind's 40 employees talk and act like adults who've had other, similar jobs. There are no beanbag chairs.
"We shouldn't be using things that are likely to cause concern at least until they have been resolved," Kumar said. "At the end of last week we made the decision to hold back."
Kumar, who has his eye on an IPO, said Thefind was a very different company than an early-stage company that has only a few hundred thousand users.
"They can be wrong and it won't ripple through to millions of people," Kumar said. "In our case, we are seeing 20-plus million visits a month. The spillover effects are much larger."
The backlash was too much for Thefind.
Not to mention that the writer across the table from him played a role in creating it.
"Especially with your article - it was everywhere - then it started to snowball," Kumar said with a laugh. "It looks like something that Facebook should clear up. So we are going to take a more phased approach."
Last week, it looked like Facebook had satisfied many critics with changes to its privacy settings that were supposed to make it simpler for users to control the flow of information.
The words from Zuckerberg's mouth to the press were confident and reassuring.
"We have heard the feedback," Zuckerberg said at a press conference at its Palo Alto headquarters on May 24. "There needs to be a simpler way to control your information. In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use."
But the new settings remained complicated enough that guides to them soon appeared across the net.
And Facebook's defaults, which more than half of its estimated 500 billion users simply accept, didn't change. They still push people to be public and open, which Zuckerberg takes to be a categorical good and his mission in life.
Facebook's march to web domination continues - and the press' scepticism remains, despite the new, simpler, but hardly simplistic privacy dashboard.
In fact, the scepticism might now be written into the finger bones of the tech press, especially after Zuckerberg's disastrous, subsequent appearance at the D8 conference. There he sweated and stammered like a first-year student at a summer internship interview, while facing predictable questions from veteran tech journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.
Many called it his "Nixon moment".
So it seems Facebook hasn't cleared up its data-sharing problem yet.
And if you want personalisation on Thefind, it is up to you, not to the mother of all social graphs.
If you find a silk blouse at the Thefind that's on sale at Neiman Marcus and you want to share, you'll need to email the link to your friends. There's no Facebook "Like" button.
And if you want to have a list of favourite stores on Thefind, you can do that, but you'll have to choose your favourites stores yourself, one by one. On Thefind's site, not Facebook's.
At least until Kumar and Thefind decide that Facebook has grown up a bit.
They'll have a chance to make that call soon. Thefind's next update is planned for the end of June.
Photo Credit: Wired.com/Ryan Singel
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