Almost famous: Suit over Facebook’s Sponsored Stories could cement your celebrity

December 21, 2011


With apologies to Tears for Fears, everybody does not want to rule the world — too much responsibility. Counting Crows were probably closer: Everybody wants to be famous. What else would explain “Fear Factor”?

And thanks to social networks, we can be. Yes, for better or for worse, a viral message can catapult you onto the celebrity stage, be it for 15 minutes, or for a career. With a gratuitous Double Rainbow reference out of the way, this post isn’t concerned with that, however.

This post is concerned with the celebrity bubble within our bubbles: How your daily me shapes your daily you shapes your friends’ daily me. How you compete to see and be seen online, even among a, on average, on Facebook at least, small circle of 130 people.

If everybody wants to be famous, I have good news for everybody: Everybody wants you to be famous, too. Everybody involved in a noteworthy Facebook lawsuit, at least.

If you haven’t heard much about the suit yet, you likely will. Don’t let Mark Zuckerberg suing Mark Zuckerberg distract you. This case, in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., Fraley v. Facebook, Inc., deals with the essence of Facebook: You “liking” stuff and Facebook selling advertising based on those “likes.”

PaidContent, among other commentators, says the legal challenge, which last week survived a motion to dismiss, threatens the social network’s Sponsored Story strategy. Introduced in January, Sponsored Stories are paid ads featuring your name, likes, and, well, likeness. For example, if John Doe “likes” a Facebook Page called “Widgets,” one of his friends could see an ad featuring John’s profile picture and the copy “John Doe likes Widgets.” For now, the ads are relegated to the right rail, but, just announced, they are coming to the Newsfeed early next year.

Angel Fraley, a 40-year-old Seattle woman, is suing Facebook on behalf of all California users registered before January 25, 2011, the day Sponsored Stories started. Seeking to stop the ads and recover damages, Fraley, who registered for Facebook under the name Angela Frolicker, alleges that by profiting off the unauthorized use of users’ testimonials, Sponsored Stories violate user publicity rights and unfair competition laws in California, where Facebook is based.

Which brings us to everybody wanting you to be famous.

The plaintiffs want you to be famous because they need to establish standing, which, among other things, requires that they demonstrate they were harmed — something that’s derailed similar lawsuits. To do this, referencing statements by Nielsen and Facebook itself, they first assert that Facebook gains from using users’ likeness because ads containing friends’ endorsements are considered more effective and therefore more valuable than traditional ads.

They then state, according to the judge’s ruling on the motion to dismiss, that the use causes economic harm “in the same way that celebrities suffer economic harm when their likeness is misappropriated for another’s commercial gain …”

The ruling continues (emphasis mine):

“Plaintiffs allege that they have been injured by Facebook’s failure to compensate them for the use of their personal endorsements because “[i]n essence, Plaintiffs are celebrities—to their friends.”

The people behind an already disruptive lawsuit against one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world say you’re famous. Go adopt yourself a chihuahua.

Facebook wants you to be famous because it would help make your actions newsworthy, and therefore exempt from misappropriation claims. Facebook offers, again, according to the ruling (again, emphasis mine), that “Plaintiffs are ‘public figures’ to their friends.”

One of the richest and most powerful companies in the world says you’re famous. Go buy yourself a tiara.

Even the judge wants you to be famous, if only to be consistent. In questioning Facebook’s newsworthiness defense (content published for commercial instead of journalistic purposes, however newsworthy, is not exempt from the publicity rights law), U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh, happily for you and your new dog, endorses both parties’ “famous” arguments.

Koh writes, in part (emphasis added):

“… the Court agrees that Plaintiffs’ assertion of their status as local ‘celebrities’ within their own Facebook social networks likewise makes them subjects of public interest among the same audience…”

A sitting federal judge says you’re famous. Go buy your chihuahua a tiara.

Whatever the law has to say — Gigaom explores the potentially wide-ranging legal ramifications in a post of its own — we’re already acting like celebrities: Competing for attention, curating public and private versions of our lives, stalking, hawking and gawking for photos. How does this affect our view of and expectations for interpersonal relationships? Are these new personal publics bringing us together? Or are they pulling us apart?

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Storm Crypt

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