Online Social Networks & Privacy: My turn to rant about Facebook

As someone who’s focusing his research on Online Social Networks and the Privacy/Disclosure topic, I’ve been quietly following the changes on Facebook, and especially the recent modifications that have taken things close to scandal proportions. It seems like these days everyone is discussing the FB privacy disaster (some of my favorites are Nancy Baym and Fred Stutzman), yet in practical terms, they have us hooked, there are actually very few people who will leave, and a large majority who don’t care and are not even aware of how dangerous this situation is. We’re not hooked to their clunky service but to all the people from our history that we’ve been able to reconnect with thanks to the popularity of their tool.

The more I think about this problem, what most pisses me off is how there could have been so many other simple ways to handle things differently, and how all these problems could have been avoided. But Facebook has taken every time the worst possible direction, making the most unethical decisions in favor of financial greed. I was recently attending a large conference, and by chance sat at the table with a high executive from Facebook, the scandal had just exploded and it was unavoidable that he ended up interrogated about how this could have happened, and after some pressure, he ended up confessing that it’s just Zuckeberg who single-handedly takes these kinds of decisions, pretty much without interest in other people’s opinion.

The two points that most upset me are: First, how they are giving users’ information to their business partners, when it would have been so much simpler (and ethical) to match businesses and potential customers while keeping the information protected. Second, it’s outrageous how cumbersome the privacy controls are: I’ve been a fist row spectator of the development of User Experience Design for the Web as a field and am sure that Facebook must have some good designers on board, so you don’t need to be a genius to figure out that they are making things hard for people on purpose, it should not be hard to protect your account, it should not take “only 20 minutes” as some third-party tutorials are now teaching us as a quickest solution.

And just today I find thanks to my Twitter contacts, two interesting pieces that address these exact problems. The Electronic Frontier Foundation released a proposed Bill of Rights for Social Network Users, which upon reading, seems like just plain common sense and makes you wonder how anyone would think that it’s good & sustainable business to do anything away from these lines. Yet if you’ve been following the current situation, it’s clear that their piece is clearly written in response to Facebook’s abusive attitude. The other piece is Fortune’s Hey Facebook! Here’s your privacy redesign, where a series of talented interaction designers share some ideas of how the privacy controls can be improved. And just as I was saying before, they are all giving interesting examples of how all this could have been managed better. From all those ideas the proposal I like the most is the circle by the guys from Sapient Nitro, it reminds me of the Altman & Taylor theory of Social Penetration: intimacy depth presented as concentric layers and areas as slices of a circle, very appropriate and straightforward. I’ve naturally been also thinking of how I’ve done this, some of my ideas are similar to the circle mentioned above, but disclosure is such a contextual issue that two variables are not enough and I’d also add topic to the mix. For a really good Online Social Networks we need strong controls for grouping our contacts in ways that can be easily modified and updated, and for keeping track and aim of what topic and level of information we share with these different groups.

I’m not sure how much ideas we should be giving away for free to this company that keeps on profiting until abuse on our private data, in fact their reputation is so low these days… as the great Elizabeth Buie put it recentlyI think I’d put either “privacy” or “policy” in quotation marks when referring to Facebook’s. :-)” I’d say, both!

Finally, I think that any private corporation managing too much personal information is a risk, it can be very dangerous, especially if they are run so irresponsibly as we are seeing the case of Facebook. I agree with Danah Boyd that services like this should be regulated, but the two major problems for that are that A, legislators are decades behind these topics and B, these services have international coverage so defining who has legal right to regulate them is an ordeal. Nevertheless they should not be run free of laws, and I wholeheartedly agree with the EFF Bill of Privacy Rights, I just can’t imagine a good service doing otherwise.

Breaking news, as I was making the final edits, I find on the BBC that FB is declaring they are listening to the users and will simplify the privacy controls. We’ll see, at this point I don’t believe much from them, they are just trying to cleanse their image.

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