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.
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.