September 08, 2006

Facebook: Socially Awkward Network (At Times)

So the Facebook bruhaha has been interesting.

One thing I think is fascinating is how many people, who aren't in Facebook, are willing to comment on the problem where Facebook (two days ago) turned on a feature to create feeds of everything you do, with time stamps.

Last night, I was talking to the founder of a big blog search company, and he was going on about how this was no big deal, and the Facebook change was all just the same as in Linked In, where when you change your profile, your contacts get notification. But Facebook's changes are much more than that. Every change you make everywhere is default set to "on" for sharing with a timestamp. And it encourages people who are not connected to you to see what you do, if you leave it turned on, because everyone who visits your profile can see your feed.

As of this morning, you can change your privacy setting. Facebook announced that they had coded up something over the past two days so that users could set up the exposure of different actions and the timestamps associated with them. But when I went to the privacy area, every setting was turned on for full sharing. By default. I had to turn things off to make things more private.

What that means is that other Facebook users you are connected to can see a lot of what you do, in a feed, with dates and times. At least that's what I thought at first. But then I realized everyone, whether we were connected or not, could see this kind of information about my activities. In other words, if you are looking for plausible deniability that you were busy, not there or otherwise engaged, and someone sees that you've done something like uploaded a photo or commented in a group, well, you are in deep s-t as you try to explain why you didn't do something else during that time. Or as one Facebook user (a recent UCLA grad) told me today after explaining that he had turned everything off, that for the two days his actions were turned on and available, his girlfriend was really mad because he'd posted on the walls of other friends who happened to be girls, and now she could see it. So he was very relieved to get the thing shut off.

Here is the default set of privacy choices:


In the discussion forums on Facebook, some want the exposure feature gone, some are satisfied with their new ability to turn everything off with the new granular privacy settings page, and some like all the new features and sharing everything, and have no problem with the default settings exposing everything in one place.

One person I discussed this with this morning at the office told me that yesterday she looked at an acquaintance's Facebook profile, where that friend had just changed her relationship status with her boyfriend from "open" to "in a relationship." My friend didn't know her well and felt this was really weird. She didn't want to know they had an open relationship. And I went to the page and I could see it all too, where each change was documented and timed. It's odd to me because I don't know this person making the relationship changes at all.

The problem is that default settings end up being left in the default state by something like 80% of users, on average. And then people get mad when those settings come back to bite them because they forget about them. Putting the default settings on "share" mode means that most people will be sharing, even with the publicity this week.

Many people don't want their every small move tracked by others... it's the definition of totalitarian. They start changing their behavior when they can't be anonymous or have plausible deniability and some incident makes it clear people are stalking. And this new feed feature removes my ability to deny, in social settings, that I was around, and therefore didn't do something someone wanted, etc. unless I make the change to turn off the exposure.

Also, with this exposure of user's activity combined with the defaults at opt-in, if people don't change them causing everything to be open and available, I might prevent others from seeing when I add people and they add me back, but others will see the interaction on the other party's timeline. The problem with this is that if I don't want others to see that I've added another person, or I've removed someone, but those actions are viewed by others elsewhere in the network, it's still very socially awkward for me to manage.

So I've unchecked almost everything, so that I'm not in the position of sharing the data myself about what I do, but I also have to remember that others can see interactions with me elsewhere and manage that.

I understand the desire in Facebook to react to the dustup by coding up the new privacy screen up above which is responsive to users' concerns. But I think I'm leaning more toward defaults for privacy that don't share everything, where the users have to opt-in to share the detrius of their lives, not opt-out as the non-default action. It probably would have been better if they'd talked with users before they made these changes, so that the feeds and privacy screens all came out at once, but it's rare that companies do this. I understand why, but I think we need to think harder about asking users to help with this, rather than ploping it in their laps after everything is all decided. Usability can help with this, even if Facebook or others need to keep this all a big secret. There are other options.

Posted by Mary Hodder at September 8, 2006 09:11 AM | TrackBack