Facebook recently changed the way it handles third-party monitoring. Before October 31, tools like Sysomos were able to access public Facebook posts based on keywords. This allowed analysts and communications folks to track issues and determine how they were playing out on Facebook. Granted, it also meant being able to see who issued relevant public posts to gain a better understanding of supporters, critics and where they stood.

Citing a concern over user privacy–widely believed to be spin for discovering another revenue stream–Facebook cut off third-party access to public posts. They’ve replaced that with a new service that restricts third-party monitoring and analysis tools to anonymized summary data. This means tools like Sysomos will be limited to demographic summaries of Facebook users who issue posts matching search criteria.

In theory, it sounds pretty good. I saw it in action today. In practice, Facebook has become a black hole.

The demonstration I observed considered mentions of the Puma sportswear company. The analysis offered meaningful summary information about the age, gender, language, regions, etc… of people who had mentioned of the company. There was no indication of what was being said. Were people talking about shoes, corporate culture or corporate social responsibility? There is no way to tell.

This introduces challenges for organizations and individuals dealing with reputation problems, issues management, and online advocacy efforts.

Facebook has played an important role alongside Twitter, blogs, forums and comments (news and blogs) in helping public affairs, public relations and customer service professionals understand opinions, emerging issues and trends. While it tends to trail Twitter in timeliness of information, Facebook often facilitates an insightful, longer-term, threaded discussion that’s easier to follow.

Companies, organizations, associations and interests groups (including political interests) that want to maintain the level of intelligence they have achieved through Facebook analysis so far will have to invest in a more manual research and analysis process.

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