Social Networking

Making sense of Facebook’s “Fixed” Privacy

Even if you don’t read any more of this post, if you use Facebook and haven’t adjusted your Facebook privacy settings since April 2010, please go do so right now – Facebook has made your profile data and photos public for all to see, including law enforcement, corporations and creepers like me. Also, you will be safest if you treat everything you post on Facebook from now on as 100% public, as if it were your personal website or blog.

For weeks, the interwebs have been all a-twitter in anger over Facebook’s recent (as well as endemic) privacy changes. The full history is far too long to discuss here, but suffice it to say that Facebook is drawing heat for changing user data and photo privacy from being “private by default” to being accessible to the entire Web.

I think it’s important to make a distinction about exactly why this a problem. Over the last decade, the Web has become more and more centered on social interactions. The vast majority of this has happened in a totally public context – blogs, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter and many other services have all been public, though some offered the ability for users to take their information private. These services never received such blowback because their users approached all of their posts as public material, and knew how to post accordingly. But Facebook, on the other hand, started out as a 100% private network where only those specifically allowed by the user could access any profile information. But as Facebook grew beyond its initial exclusivity to college students and then to regional networks, the network quietly removed much of the privacy that was its very defining characteristic. (Matt McKeon posted a perfect visual graph depicting the devolution of Facebook privacy over time which helps understand Facebook’s many changes to privacy settings.)

Facebook users can’t be expected to follow the site’s ever-changing privacy defaults and change their personal settings accordingly. While Facebook’s privacy changes are certainly not malicious in intent, they are nevertheless betraying its users’ trust. As a tech professional, I hold myself responsible for everything I post online, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to apply the same standard to every user of a site which has become a central aspect to the social interactions of  so many people. Facebook has a particularly dubious track record when it comes to their user data – check out this gem from an instant messaging conversation with CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the Facebook’s launch:

Zuckerberg: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuckerberg: Just ask.

Zuckerberg: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?

Zuckerberg: People just submitted it.

Zuckerberg: I don’t know why.

Zuckerberg: They “trust me”

Zuckerberg: Dumb fucks.

(credit: Silicon Valley Insider)

And yesterday, the same Zuckerberg announced an upcoming overhaul and simplification of Facebook’s privacy settings for his precious dumb fucks users. It’s a good change for sure, and one that Facebook couldn’t afford not to make while they prepare to go IPO. I am particularly impressed that they’re adding the ability to completely opt out of the third party Facebook Platform. But it doesn’t solve the key issue of much user data being public by default, including their profile information and photos.

New Facebook Privacy Settings

Facebook's upcoming new privacy controls: making it easier for you to lock down the profile that should have been private in the first place.

From here out, Facebook has simply lost my trust. I feel as though they’ve taken my online social interactions hostage for ransom money. I feel like it’s important to have both public and private social networks, and I would definitely trust a responsible company enough to keep my information private. But Facebook? Fat chance. I’m treating everything I post there as if it were open to the whole world to see, and eagerly looking for ways to remove myself from their attempts to own my social interactions. I’m not breaking up with you, Facebook, but it’s pretty safe to say that you’ve changed our relationship status to “It’s complicated.”

Why Google Buzz is a huge deal

Today, Google announced the release of their new product, Google Buzz.

Looking at just the features offered in this video, it appears to be nothing more than a Facebook News Feed clone with Gmail integration. But don’t be fooled: Google Buzz has the potential to totally disrupt social networking as we know it today, and to do it for the better, for the sole reason of its open nature.

Online social networking has been a repetition of the same pattern since the mid-1990s: companies offering “walled-garden” networks offering cool new ways to connect with others – as long as they buy into the same network. It’s great for business, as users are better attractors of customers than any cool new feature could ever be. The operator then owns that social interaction medium between the people who come to rely upon it. We saw it happen with AOL. We saw it in the early 2000’s with the advent of blogging, as the most successful personal blogs were the ones hosted on social communities such as Livejournal, Xanga and Blogger. We moved on to MySpace (come on, admit it… we all can share in the shame!) and then Facebook, and Twitter has long passed the point of being a toy for early adopters, as it has become a tool of the masses.

But these sites – these closed networks – lock users into using their system for communication. This is in stark contrast with our real life social network – the completely fluid and decentralized manner in which we interact. This social network belongs to us, and cannot be monopolized by another. There is no tangible constraint that keeps me from interacting with someone else in one way or another, only issues like distance and language, things which are decreasingly important as technology advances.

So why should our social interactions online be different from our interactions in the rest of the world? I should be able to connect with others regardless of which applications I choose to use. Google Buzz is a major step in this direction. Buzz has a huge amount of interoperability using existing technologies like Atom/RSS and OAuth, and is getting much more soon. (It’s all for developers’ taking at Buzz’s Google Code page.)

What makes this relevant to everyone is the ability to publish and read from just about any application you want. This isn’t a centralized application like Facebook Platform, where developers extend more functionality to users and keep them inside the “Walled Garden,” but enables social communication between all kinds of applications, instead of demanding that friends use the same applications if they wish to communicate. In theory, I can post a status, photo, video, or just about anything on Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, or even my personal site at ZekeWeeks.com, and everybody gets that information regardless of which applications they choose to use themselves.

This announcement means a win for the users, and a serious threat to operators of closed social networks. I don’t know how much it will succeed, but I’m all for products which improve users’ lives and increase technologies’ openness to everyone’s benefit.