Commentary

How Facebook's New, New Privacy Settings Show How It Listened -- And Didn't

As this will mark the sixth week in a row that I've posted about Facebook, I'll be entering a 12-step program later this afternoon to get me off the addictive habit of constantly looking at the world as if Facebook is the only thing that matters. But today, on the day that Facebook announced its latest round of privacy controls -- which has been the theme of all those columns, dating back to mid-April -- it's just too tempting. So here we go.

We already know the basic news: as company officials have been saying since last week, the overhaul simplifies Facebook's current privacy settings in three basic ways as opposed to a zillion. As the features roll out over the next few weeks, users will easily be able to control who sees all of their content.  They'll also have to share less basic information and easily turn off what gets shared with applications and third-party Web sites.

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But what I'm really interested in -- this being social media -- is how well Facebook listened to some of its outraged users. On that score, Facebook both has -- and hasn't -- listened. 

Below, first, are the ways in which Facebook listened:

1. In realizing that users don't want to constantly reset their settings. For instance, if you want only friends to see your content, now, and in the future, that will continue to be the case, unless you change it. If Facebook launches a new gizmo that lets you telepathically share your thoughts and feelings, they will still only be transmitted to those who've you predetermined should see your innermost thoughts. The new privacy settings are also retroactive to old content you've posted.

2. In understanding that granularity is overrated. Facebook, like a lot of tech companies, loves the term "granular." It always seems to me this is because engineers love to show how many different ways they can slice up a bunch of code. Fortunately, Facebook now understands that most of the rest of us aren't impressed. From CEO Mark Zuckerberg's lengthy post about the new controls: "Unless you feel in control, then you won't be comfortable sharing and our service will be less useful for you."

3. In seeing that users might prefer not-so-instant personalization. Again, from Zuckerberg's post: "Already, partner sites can only see things you've made visible to everyone. But if you want to prevent them from even seeing that, you can now easily turn off instant personalization completely." Phew. My out-of-character addiction to Burt Bacharach can now be hidden more easily. (Whoops!)

4. And, finally, that user experience comes first. Though I have a few caveats about this one (see below), Facebook's pulling back on how and where information is shared shows it's realized there will always be a lot of tension at the company between pleasing users and making money - and that even if a fraction of users are actually threatening to pull their accounts, user experience has to come first.

Which leads me to the two ways in which I don't think Facebook has heard its users -- yet:

1. That an open world is always a better world. At one point in his blog post, Zuckerberg falls back on the Facebook truthiness that he's said before: "When you share more, the world becomes more open and connected." The default belief here, of course, is that this open, connected world is also obviously better, like, say, not smoking cigarettes is obviously better. While an open, connected world may be better when it comes to, for instance, thwarting Communism, some bits of information should be private. I'd argue that Facebook has to at some point realize that the virtue of an "open, connected world" is not black and white, but contains a million shades of gray.

2. That opt-out is still the best way to go with certain settings. I can't count how many times over the last few weeks I've read, and opined myself, that the default on Facebook privacy settings should be set to the most limited level of sharing. According to Digital Daily's John Paczkowski, Zuckerberg's response to this was: "The point of the site is to allow you to connect with new friends and friends of friends ... It's really important to help people share simply by default." I suppose he has a point here -- if you want to go live in a cave, why complain about not having windows? --  but, on the other hand, it circles back to the whole issue of user experience vs. money. Setting the default so that users have to opt-in to everything hampers targeting, and that may be a bridge too far for Facebook at this point -- particularly if you harbor, the belief, as I do, that ultimately the Open Graph changes of a few weeks favored money over users.

Still, all in all, Facebook has gone a long way on privacy in just a few short weeks, and without any tedious hearings in front of the FTC! Now, let's all get on with our lives, and share them, with whomever we want to -- and not share them with whomever we don't.

6 comments about "How Facebook's New, New Privacy Settings Show How It Listened -- And Didn't".
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  1. Scott Pannier from 47 Media, May 26, 2010 at 6:22 p.m.

    I'm still not buying what Facebook is selling in terms of them changing privacy settings. I just logged into my account and it's still the same options, one big loop-de-loop of having to go into 5 categories and 5 or 6 options within each category to try and edit your willingness to share your profile info, pictures, etc.

  2. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, May 26, 2010 at 8:20 p.m.

    Hi Scott,

    The setting are rolling out over the next few weeks. What you saw is not the new stuff, probably.

    Cathy

  3. Jeff Behan from VisionTrust Communications, May 27, 2010 at 8:58 a.m.

    Good article and not too obsessed. Right now facebook is the big buffet we're all eating at and it's good to know what secret ingredients they're putting in our food.

  4. Scott Waxenberg from TBG Digital, May 27, 2010 at 10:47 a.m.

    You DO need to hit that 12-step program, Cathy! As much as Facebook is the big kahuna and oh so popular, I would love for you and David to focus on other topics in the social media space. You 2 are the "insiders" so tell us something we don't know and don't read about everywhere else.

  5. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, May 28, 2010 at 3:50 a.m.

    While I staunchly hold that anything you put into a Facebook profile is basically a broadcast to the world that will wind up on a Google search (so don't put your real date of birth if you don't want yet another reference to your age in Google), what Facebook isn't mentioning about privacy is that *outside of their site* you may not be the real you or the you presented by the Facebook profile you are currently logged into.

    If you have several Facebook accounts, including anonymous ones with fake names so you can talk about politics or medical issues, how can you be sure that Instant Personalization won't get confused as to who you are as you interact with other sites around the Internet?

    I mentioned before that the Twitlonger service recently posted tweets not to the account I tried to tweet from, but to the account I originally tweeted from via their service (cookie confusion). This could have been devastating (for instance if I had accidentally made a political remark on behalf of a corporation).

    The confusion of what cookie is telling another site about who you are compared to who you want to be at any particular moment, is where privacy issues become serious. Anonymity needs to be a cornerstone of Internet surfing and we cannot let anonymity be something you have to Opt-In to.

  6. Judy Davey, May 31, 2010 at 1:41 p.m.

    Good balanced POV, at least that’s my POV but I realize it won’t be everyone’s POV. I particularly love the authors comment “I'll be entering a 12-step program later this afternoon to get me off the addictive habit of constantly looking at the world as if Facebook is the only thing that matters.”. The article also has the added benefit of demonstrates how our world continues to become more cluttered and everything seems to be open for advertising / promotion – note pink ad (meet Catharine P Taylor for those on bb) in the body of the article. Breaking through in a relevant way continues to be an opportunity and a challenge.

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