magic8ball

Facebook is placing its hopes on a glorified Magic 8-Ball.

The company plans to introduce the Mentions Box, a device that selects questions from Facebook users and prompts a celebrity to answer one with a video response, during tonight’s Emmy Awards. (Access Hollywood has the unenviable task of carrying this plastic monstrosity around and asking celebrities to shake it.)

The stunt is part of Facebook’s continued efforts to convince celebrities that its platform can replace Twitter as their preferred place to interact with their fans. It released an application, Mentions, with a similar purpose in July. At the time, I wrote the following about Mentions:

Mentions is the latest example of Facebook’s attempts to respond to Twitter, which has long catered to celebrities with a service that allows them to share things with the world without requiring them to pretend to care about what the world might be sharing in return. Facebook is desperate to expand from its personal roots to public conversations, and celebrities are key.

The Mentions Box has made Facebook’s desperation even clearer. I’m not sure how others decide when a company is getting desperate, but to me, asking celebrities to shake a giant tablet and then answer whatever question appears seems like as good an indicator as any.

Unfortunately, stunts like this might be exactly what Facebook needs to convince people to use its service to interact with their favorite — or least favorite — celebrities. Many Facebook users aren’t comfortable with the company’s new focus on public conversations, as I wrote in May:

Twitter users are comfortable with the service’s public nature. Most know that their tweets can be seen by anyone, and many are starting to learn that things posted to the service can be grabbed by any writer looking for some story fodder. Using Twitter is like standing in front of an open window and doing jumping jacks in an open kimono, and its users are fine with that.

Using Facebook is like doing those jumping jacks with the blinds down. Some people — and Facebook itself — are able to peek inside, but as long as Facebook’s users have control over who can see through the cracks, they accept that as a risk of doing those jumping jacks in front of a window instead of somewhere a little more private. Facebook changed that when it made new profiles public by default, and now that people have noticed that their dangly bits were in full view of anyone passing by their digital window, the company has had to close the blinds again.

The Emmys Awards could allow Facebook to encourage public conversations without creeping out its users. It appeases those who don’t want everything they say on the service to be public while allowing others to contribute their thoughts to the rampant voyeurism encouraged by our celebrity-driven culture. For Facebook, it’s a rare opportunity to keep many users happy.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the company is placing its hopes in what looks like a children’s toy, or that Twitter has already established itself as the go-to place to discuss things like the Emmy Awards. (Not that Twitter is resting on its laurels; it has already partnered with NBC to bring a branded zip-line camera to the red carpet and pre-show ridiculousness.)

Maybe it should have consulted an actual Magic 8-Ball before making the Mentions Box.

[photo by Josh McGinn]