But before I continue, it's not just Schrage's answers to questions surrounding Facebook's new privacy policies that are worth reading. If anything, it's the 93-and-counting comments that follow Schrage's answers that provide the real insight -- and it's not a particularly happy one. As one commenter puts it: "Asking Facebook's privacy dude about privacy is a more pointless exercise than asking Goldman if they are greedy..."
Like it or not, Facebook has lost trust between itself and many of its users. The commenters' complaints have three broad themes:
1. That despite Schrage's protestations -- and evidence -- to the contrary, the company is selling user data to advertisers.
2. That a basic assumption the company makes about its users' motives on Facebook is fundamentally flawed: namely, that people actually want to connect with people they don't already know quite well. One comment, which has since been recommended by 71 other people, shouts: "You [Facebook] may THINK you know why I come to Facebook and you have assumed TOO MUCH. I come to share and interact with specific people that I already know. DID YOU HEAR THAT? SPECIFIC PEOPLE THAT I ALREADY KNOW. I do not want ANY information revealed to strangers by default."
3. That (and to me, this was Schrage's biggest misstep, among a number of them), everything on Facebook is not opt-in. When Schrage said: "Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice," what he didn't take into account is that the shifting sands of privacy on the service often make it quite the opposite. If you signed up for Facebook even a few months ago, it is not the service you agreed to participate in -- and that makes changing your privacy settings, since sharing with everyone is the default -- inherently opt-out. (Many readers picked up on this.)
And then there's this quite fascinating story, also in The New York Times, about the four New York University students trying to build something called Diaspora*, a social network -- in part a reaction to Facebook -- that will give users complete control over their information. The story explains that the fledgling service's creators gave themselves 39 days to raise $10,000. They did it in 12, with minimal donations from people they knew. "We were shocked," one of its founders told the Times. "For some strange reason, everyone just agreed with this whole privacy thing."
One thing that struck me about the Diaspora* story is what wasn't in it: an idea for how, or if, it would make money. Per usual, the plan is to make the code free to everyone and let other programmers build on it. But it got me to thinking...
When you read all of these user comments about Facebook, you can't help but notice that part of the anger comes from a sense of violation a lot of people have, which extends beyond privacy. Folks love Facebook, but now they feel a little tentative about using it. Maybe it's time for Facebook to build a subscription model, for users who love it as a way to connect and reconnect with people they've cared about in their lives -- but don't want their data used to serve ads or to make it out to the broader Web. For people who value Facebook, but don't like the current approach to privacy, this might be a fair trade.