Blocked by Facebook: Chatty Moms Come Under Fire

Meet Lucy Berry, a Kansas-based mother of three, online "mommy" group member, and Facebook felon. Her Facebook crime? It was sharing too much, too fast about potty training, her children's sleeping habits, and weighing in on new G-rated DVD releases.

Berry isn't the only guilty Facebook mom. According to a number of women who are part of a newly formed Facebook Group of 30 young mothers, Facebook has singled some of them out for using Facebook too much. Berry and others say Facebook has harangued them with pop-up warnings, forced them to use CAPTCHA security forms to post messages (CAPTCHA is a kind of test to make sure a real person, not an automated process, is sending a message), and in some cases temporarily suspended them from adding comments in parts of Facebook.

"We were just discussing our children," says Berry. And the next thing she knew she received a 24-hour account restriction after being warned against posting too much too quickly. "I got a message saying I may be annoying other people. Which I know isn't true," she says.

Facebook Moms Gone Bad?

Their problems began several weeks ago when Facebook launched a private Groups feature that allows members to create invite-only areas on the social network. At first the mothers say the Facebook Group feature seemed ideally suited for sharing baby tips. That is, of course, until Facebook clamped down threatening to suspend and boot moms for abusing the social network's antispam rules.

Berry says the Group was very popular, and on a typical day the moms posted between 220 and 300 messages to the group's page. That's a lot of activity, they admit. But abuse? No way, they say.

Facebook Cries Foul

Facebook says the problems that Berry and other moms experienced are linked to Facebook's security software. A Facebook spokesperson said the social network uses a number of automated systems to block spam-like or abusive behavior. These systems can flag an account if it detects potentially suspicious activity such as sending a lot of messages in a short period of time or distributing links that lead to malicious Websites. The company also said it employs CAPTCHAS to verify that a human being is using the flagged account and not an automated bot.

"For [Facebook] to say I 'abused' anything is just ludicrous. We were just discussing the latest kid DVDs, and one of the ladies was trying to decide about going back to work," said group member Christine from Vancouver, British Columbia.

Moms Get a Time Out

Christine says one day after posting 35 to 40 messages within a 1.5- to 2-hour period she received two warnings via pop-up messages from Facebook saying that she was posting too frequently and to slow down. "Then before I had the opportunity to question if any of the other girls got suspended [from commenting] I could no longer post," she says. Christine said her account was restricted for 24 hours. Meanwhile other moms say they started getting generic pop-up windows warning them against overposting. At least two moms say they had their Facebook privileges temporarily restricted. Other moms contacted for this story say they were spooked by Facebook's warnings and backed off before getting into trouble. The moms who did have their accounts restricted said they could not post to the group wall, comment on their Facebook friend's walls or even comment on their own status updates for a period of time.

Facebook Almost Apologizes

Facebook said it tries to ensure the company's automated security systems can distinguish between enthusiastic users and spam-like behavior. But, the company admits, in some cases mistakes may have been made.

"We're constantly updating these systems based on how people are using our features," a Facebook spokesperson said. "In this case, we've recently tweaked the system for groups to allow people to post at a quicker rate. No system is perfect, and in rare cases, legitimate activity is blocked. We're always working to improve our systems, and we use information from these cases in doing so."

Facebook, Antisocial?

Others have also faced the wrath of Facebook.

Emory University graduate student John S. Wilson said Facebook in July didn't just give him a time out, but shut down his personal account and a Facebook fan page for his blog. "The disabling of my account happened without any warning whatsoever," Wilson said.

When Wilson asked Facebook why his account was disabled, he was told it was due to the use of "too many captchas." Wilson said Facebook would sometimes require him to fill out the captchas when he used the Facebook Share Bookmarklet. Facebook's bookmarklet is a small computer program that sits in your browser's bookmark bar. It lets you post links to articles, videos, or music back to Facebook with just a few clicks.

Wilson said the company told him it had an internal limit of how many captchas a person can complete before being flagged for suspicious behavior (a Facebook spokesperson denied there was any such limit). Wilson said Facebook also told him he was sending unsolicited messages to people he didn't know, but Wilson disputes that.

Wilson's Facebook account was reinstated about a week later, after he complained to Facebook. "I contacted the advertising team and made it known that Facebook's behavior was irresponsible... My page was back up within 24 hours," Wilson said.

Facebook Perp Walk

Wilson and the members from the young mothers group admit they were posting a fair amount of messages to Facebook. But they also say they were just using Facebook to communicate with friends, and not for suspicious activities such as posting spam messages or links to suspicious Websites.

Although the Facebook moms escaped Wilson's fate, others have not been so lucky. Cases in point: popular blogger Robert Scoble, Daily Beast contributor Howard Bragman, and Florida resident Justin Bieber (who is not that Justin Bieber). All three of them have seen their Facebook accounts disabled for violating Facebook's Terms of Service. In 2008, Scoble temporarily got the boot for running an automated script on the social network's site that he was using to download his personal data--Facebook recently launched a new feature that now lets users download their data. Bragman was temporarily kicked off Facebook for adding too many friends too quickly.

Bieber, meanwhile, was kicked off in early October for allegedly signing up for Facebook with a fake name, according to First Coast News. It appears Facebook confused Florida's Bieber with the Canadian pop star. To be fair, Facebook isn't the only one to make this mistake: Bieber was reportedly also kicked off Ping, Apple's iTunes-based social network, for a short period of time because of his name. The Florida resident also says he gets numerous phone calls and fan mail every day from teenage girls afflicted with "Bieber Fever." Florida's Bieber has since had his Facebook account reactivated; at the time of this writing he had 118 friends.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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