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Wallflower or Extrovert? Facebook Lets Users Choose by Post

By Renay San Miguel
Jul 2, 2009 11:21 AM PT

With 200 million members who double as very vocal quality assurance officers, Facebook knows that any tinkering with its privacy policy is going to receive a lot of attention. So, its Wednesday announcement of an upcoming series of tests regarding its new privacy settings was carefully marketed as a matter of "control, simplicity and connection" by chief privacy officer Chris Kelly.

Wallflower or Extrovert? Facebook Lets Users Choose by Post

"The power to share is the cornerstone of Facebook," Kelly wrote in the Facebook Blog. "Privacy and the tools for tailoring what information is shared with whom are at the heart of trust."

The new features, which were launched in a beta version for certain members last week, will allow users to tailor privacy settings on a per-post basis. Photos, videos, links and updates can be shared exclusively among those you want to view them; friends and family can see pictures of kids on vacation; business colleagues can read blog postings relating to work projects or industry issues; other friends can see webcam rants on politics, religion, etc.

Over the next few days, some members will be given a chance to make the switch to customized settings via a Transition Tool that is itself a beta product, Kelly said. A final tool will be sent out to all members after feedback on its effectiveness is taken into account.

Privacy Advocates Weigh In

Facebook, Kelly emphasized, will not be handing over member information to advertisers, and the Transition Tool will take into account a member's previous privacy settings.

However, things may not play out as smoothly as Facebook is advertising, according to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

"I don't have a problem with the fact they're making [privacy] simpler. I agree it's a good thing," Rotenberg told TechNewsWorld. His issue is with those who are being transitioned who have already made their settings preferences known. "I think they'll be encouraged at every step to make their information more public. That's the privacy problem here. They are basically changing the rules for people who have already said, 'I only want my information disclosed to this group of people.'"

EPIC will keep a close eye on the transition, Rotenberg said. Its monitoring of Facebook, along with member complaints, resulted in changes to the wording used in company plans announced in February to retain users' information even if they stopped being members.

The assurance regarding advertisers is OK with Rotenberg, but EPIC remains worried that Facebook continues to offer member information to third-party application developers and doesn't address that issue in its new strategy. Also, an option to put status updates for general view on the Internet should be made clearer to members, he noted.

"I don't think that decision should be made for them," Rotenberg said.

Can Privacy Be Clean and Simple?

The process for implementing the new settings will be easier than before, according to Facebook's Kelly. New features added in the past have called for new settings, and the effect "has made controlling privacy on Facebook too complicated. With the test we're announcing today, we'll move towards simplifying these settings and putting them all on the same page. We'll also standardize the options we provide for each setting so the choices are always the same. Lastly, we'll remove overlapping settings to reduce confusion and combine profile fields that are similar, so you only have to make one decision," Kelly wrote.

Can Facebook privacy really be made that simple? "Everything goes into a database on a massive scale, but it's just like cells on a spreadsheet," social media strategist Lon Safko told TechNewsWorld. "When you create a template, where you pull information from a database, you simply create fields, and you can show column A, but don't show column B and column C, but you can show column D. Now, on the scale they're doing it, it's obviously not a mid-morning project, but it's truly and honestly repackaging content they already have."

The need to simplify is also probably a result of the large amounts of data that Facebook is now working with, thanks to its tremendous growth, said Safko, who has experience developing software for business. "I can't imagine how much information they're handling with 200 million users, but the profiles alone are probably terabytes, and then you start throwing in video, music, backgrounds," he said.

Facebook, according to Safko, must do two things to grow into a company that will generate more revenue via advertising: It must organize its databases more effectively and market itself as privacy-friendly, considering the debacles of the past six months that have stoked the ire of its members.

"It's a really good marketing strategy," Safko said. "It shows that 'we care about your privacy, and we're not going to let [controversies] happen again, and we're going to give you 100 percent control.' They're doing something different in marketing -- they're putting spins on every asset that they have, and it's generating publicity and generating press awareness."


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What is the most consequential impact of social media on society today?
It has opened up valuable new channels for civil discourse.
It has destroyed the meaning of "truth" and "fact."
It has made people stronger by facilitating grass roots activism.
It has deepened divisions among groups with opposing views.
It has made it easier for people to support and help each other.
It has made it easier for people to humiliate and hurt each other.