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How Facebook Failed Privacy 101

December 11th, 2009. By Dave Oei. 9,665 views.
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Facebook and Privacy, or Lack Thereof

Facebook and Privacy, or Lack Thereof

The biggest piece of news to hit 350 million Internet users this week was the introduction of new “privacy” controls in Facebook. I use the term “privacy” loosely because if you bothered to dig into your Facebook privacy settings, you would have been somewhat shocked to see that many of the default privacy settings magically reverted to an open-free-for-everyone state. It happened to me and a few others. And, apparently, it happened to many millions of others. The bottom line? Very few of us were happy.

Here are the reasons why Facebook has it all wrong. Actually, there’s only one big reason. And, if Facebook is paying attention, this critique can eventually lead to Facebook privacy a model that’ll be a standard for the Internet.  Ready?

It’s Way Too Complicated
Oh.  My.  Goodness.  Have you ever bothered to count how many screens and how many tabs on each screen you have to visit before you’ve fully examined all your Facebook privacy settings?  Rather than looking, I’m trying to figure it out in my head and I’ve concluded that I’d much rather attempt mental long division.  Or cube roots.

Facebook could argue that they would like to give users a high degree of granularity when it comes to exactly who can seen what.  That’s understandable.  After all, who would want their mom to catch a photo of them passed out on the toilet after a night out with the old gang?  Because you know your buddies are going to post the photo.  Then tag you.  And before you know it, you’re paying own way through college.

My response?  You have several options.  First, don’t invite your mom.  Or second, get new buddies.  Or third, don’t invite anybody you don’t trust.  Personally, I favor both the second and third options.  And I’d think most others would as well.

Ultimately, what Facebook fails to realize is that these extreme levels of granularity are completely and entirely unnecessary.  Because if you “friend” a bunch of jerks who plaster your wall with vulgarities, is Facebook really to blame? Obviously not. And, what Facebook doesn’t realize is that the only reason why people feel okay with posting status updates and pictures is not because there’s a sense of trust within the underlying computer code.

Instead, it’s much more simple.  People post because they trust those they’ve “friended.”

Once a user has made a commitment to “friend” someone, they inherit all the risks and rewards that go along with that decision.  I honestly doubt that a significant percentage of Facebook users have used any of the privacy options that prevent one group of friends from seeing things that another group can’t.  And why should they?  Because they’re your friends.

So, Facebook, cut it out with privacy controls to the extreme. Come 2010 all I want to see is this:

Facebook Privacy Settings

Please select one of the options below which will dictate how all of the content generated and provided by you will be seen by others.  Show what I create to:

  • Just me.
  • All my friends.
  • All friends of friends.
  • Everybody.

Please select who can search for you:

  • Just me.
  • All my friends.
  • All friends of friends.
  • Everybody.

Yes, it’s that easy.  I’m willing to wager that about 99.5% of all Facebook users would be thrilled with the above.  But for reasons that go beyond the scope of this article, I don’t believe Facebook shares the sentiment.  Why?  In a nutshell: Ads.

Getting back, Facebook, ok, I realize I may be wrong.  But I doubt it.  If you think I’m wrong, I challenge you to share with the public what percentage of your users actually take advantage of the granular per-friend privacy settings. My guess is something around 0.01%.  If that.

In the end, does any of this matter?  Because if history is an indicator, Facebook may be the “it” thing now, but won’t be forever.  Who knows what will eventually surpass Facebook as the “it” social networking phenomenon?  Whatever it is, my money’s on the one that’s more user-friendly, more transparent, easier to use, and customizable.

For now, Facebook ol’ buddy, you’ll just have to do.  And consequently, I’ll have to be on my guard and make do.

Author’s aside: You can try but for very obvious reasons you won’t find me on Facebook.  Instead, try my twitter account: @daveoei.

Business and Politics

  1. Ramses Agustin
    December 12th, 2009 at 01:17 | #1

    I agree that Facebook’s new privacy options are complicated and that users need to be responsible with whom they friend and what they post. However, I think your opinion of why people use Facebook is a little narrow. Basically, you seem to argue that Facebook is to connect with your _current_ circle of friends. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, I think people use Facebook to learn about new friends and to reconnect with old friends. Essentially, the groups I’m going to use as my examples are twenty-something college students and, for want of a better term, adults.

    Historically, when Facebook was founded, it was open only to college students. People in this generation typically grew up in an environment of ubiquitous communication: their own cell phones for talk & texting and their own internet-connected computers with some instant messaging client installed. Consequently, they’re much more “open” and connected with their peers. I’ve heard it said that “kids” collect FB friends like collecting baseball cards. Some they keep and treasure; others they discard without any personal emnity.

    Eventually Facebook went public and allowed anyone to sign up. And in the past few years, the largest demographic to join is those aged 35-54. For these people, the major incentive for use is to reconnect with people they’ve lost touch with in the past. Personally, I’ve used various social networks to reconnect with past acquaintances from undergrad, high school, and even elementary school. The unconscious predicament of using social networks is in answering the question “Are these people _still_ friends?” Time and experience change us all, for better and for worse.

    Ultimately, Facebook (and similar social networks) circumvent the rules of self-disclosure, i.e. the natural process of how we communicate and reveal ourselves and become “friends.” (This goes to the core of _my_ opinion of Facebook, but that’s for another discussion). On Facebook, all your information is out there, all at once. For the younger generation, is this a problem? I know a lot of significantly younger people, and many say they aren’t so much, but I think they just haven’t thought out the ramifications. For the adults, well, many of my cohort can be opinionated. And by that, I mean judgmental. Enough said?

    Each of us belongs to several distinct overlapping and non-overlapping social circles, and Facebook’s “failure” lies in being greedy and trying to cater to every group and every taste. Over the past few years, I’ve watched as Facebook features expand and the site emulate other specialized networks. With Facebook, you can send messages, chat, post status updates and notes, share pictures, give virtual gifts, take quizzes, “like” stuff… no wonder the site’s privacy settings are confusing! Jack of all trades, master of none.

    Anyway, I think I’ve rambled on for too long now.

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