Is Facebook Sacrificing Its Legacy of Privacy for an Open Future?

fblogosmallLast week, Facebook launched a major initiative geared towards getting users to share more information more openly. In the few days since, many people have criticized Facebook’s move as misleading, though it’s too early to tell if a significant number of users will be upset enough by the changes to complain or change their actual behavior. More broadly, however, the move reflects deeper changes in Facebook’s longer term product strategy. What were Facebook’s motivations for this “privacy” initiative, and what’s likely to happen as a result? Let’s take a look.

Facebook’s Privacy Foundations

Facebook’s privacy model has always been foundational to the trust users put in the company. While other services like MySpace have encouraged a more “open” way of sharing information and building an online identity, Facebook’s default information-sharing settings have always been relatively private. As a result, hundreds of millions of users around the world today routinely do things on Facebook that only a few years ago would be unthinkable, like parents commenting on their children’s status updates, and millions of people uploading thousands of personal photos to the Internet. Without Facebook’s historically strict privacy settings, much of what has happened over the last few years would not have been possible.

Privacy is not only foundational to the trust users put in Facebook, it’s a fundamental part of users’ conceptual models of how Facebook works. It’s what makes people feel safe sharing personal information. Many people just don’t feel comfortable putting their status updates or sonogram photos in the public Internet archive forever.

The Limitations of a Default-Private Model

However, while many people don’t want to share much information publicly online today, some do. For those people, Facebook’s historical default privacy settings did not make it the right product for them. As a result, Facebook recognized that its default-private model made it vulnerable to other services with default-public models, like Twitter. Even though only a relatively few people may want to share in a predominantly public way, many people may want to share some (arguably increasing) subset of things more openly, and many people are interested in consuming a variety of different types of public information.

In addition, the default-private model might actually slow down the spread of memes compared to more open systems (though we don’t have access to data necessary to back this up). The fundamental nature of a News Feed comprised of mostly private content makes “resharing” on Facebook a less common/normal behavior than “retweeting” on Twitter. While this dynamic keeps the content in the stream more pure, it also means that there may be fundamental limits to the amount of reshared public content that might ever come through the stream.

In other words, there are several use cases in which some users – and Facebook – would get more value out of a more open system.

This put Facebook in a tough position: if it believed that a more open system would create more overall value in the end, how could it move from a default-private model to a more open one? There was no painless way to enable even the people who would want to be more open to change their privacy settings en masse quickly. Facebook had to choose whether to let the historically private settings ride, or to make a push to get people to open up – even at the risk of losing some users’ trust.

Facebook’s Calculated Move

While Facebook’s decision to launch this openness initiative has been called a lot of things, one thing it can’t be called is thoughtless. Facebook was well aware of the implications of making this push, but ultimately felt that it was vital to its future to shift its default privacy model more toward open sharing. Facebook initially announced its intentions to put people through this “privacy transition” in July, even so much as showing a mockup at that time that looks nearly exactly like the “privacy transition wizard” that people saw last week – though with most of the options set to “Old Settings” instead of “Everyone,” as most people ended up getting.

That being said, Facebook’s decision to make the recommended privacy options for profile data like “Family and Relationships” and “Posts I Create” be set to “Everyone” – as well as its move to remove privacy controls for Gender, Current City, and Friends – were pretty aggressive by almost anyone’s standards. In particular, its decision to present users with a binary choice between “Everyone” and “Old Settings” for some privacy preferences was especially confusingly executed. Nevertheless, Facebook decided to bite the bullets of potentially significant user confusion and potentially severe loss of user trust in order to take this risk.

It’s interesting to observe how Facebook ultimately chose to delineate between fields it defaulted to “Everyone,” “Friends of Friends,” and “Friends” in the transition wizard. Those settings reflect the intended use cases Facebook’s product leadership has for the future of the service.

The Challenges of a Hybrid Public/Private Model

As Facebook has grown over the years, so has its ambitions. Today, Facebook is by far the largest social networking platform in the world, and has enabled new forms of efficient communication, advertising, and software distribution. As Facebook has mapped an increasingly larger portion of the “social graph” of human connections, it has expanded its definition of the “social graph” to include the businesses, products, brands, and services that we communicate with every day. That change fundamentally added a degree of complexity to the Facebook ecosystem, adding the new concept of asymmetric “fan” relationships between users and public profiles to the traditional concept of symmetric “friend” relationships that have existed between Facebook users since the beginning.

However, now that Facebook has chosen to push further toward the public end of the public/private hybrid system that Mark Zuckerberg envisions, it must face a more challenging and complex problem: letting users apply per-item privacy rules to each and every profile field and piece of content shared. Facebook isn’t satisfied with a mostly-private platform: it wants to be the single place where both sensitive personal information is shared and public memes spread.

While the “transition tool” that Facebook chose to roll out will effectively enable those who want to share more openly to do so en masse quickly, it also comes with some built-in problems. First, it will inevitably lead some people to inadvertently grant public access to content they intended to be private. That could lead to losses in user trust. Second, it creates an intrinsically more complicated privacy model, putting the burden on users both to construct a robust framework for sharing different types of information on Facebook, and to remember who they’ve allowed to see what. That could lead to user confusion, and fear of the unknown.

The transition tool Facebook implemented will likely lead to more users understanding their privacy settings better, and choosing the settings that are right for them. But both of these problems could cost Facebook in terms of its own engagement and virality numbers. The question is, if so, how much?

Grappling with Facebook’s Motivations

A fair question to ask at this point is: Was this openness initiative by Facebook either 1) evil, or 2) stupid? Most of the arguments out there that say Facebook’s move was one or the other (or both) conclude that Facebook’s ultimate motivation behind this initiative was to get more traffic through search. These arguments usually assume that Facebook is misleading a sufficient number of users to make the wrong choices about their privacy settings through the clever design of the “privacy transition wizard.”

Ultimately, those that believe that this move was evil or stupid must also believe either one of two things: 1) That Facebook has more to gain through increased openness than it has to lose through decreased user trust, and the company is intentionally and aggressively choosing to pursue this new open strategy despite the problems it might produce for users, or 2) That Facebook doesn’t understand its users and has made a short-sighted product decision. Let’s look more at each of these.

We would be cautious before running with the claim that Facebook is ready to abandon privacy wholesale. First, any material losses in user trust as a result of these changes will have a greater and longer lasting negative impact on Facebook than any gains it can realize through accelerated openness in the short term. Facebook’s privacy model is fundamental to users’ conceptual models of how Facebook works, and if enough users lose trust in Facebook’s privacy, that could cripple it forever. So much of the deep identity that lives within Facebook is verified through social interactions between real friends and family. Without privacy, many of these interactions would never happen. Over time, this would drastically weaken users’ ties to Facebook as a reliable place to share information, the signal-to-noise ratio in the News Feed would plummet, and the only people left sharing on Facebook would eventually be those comfortable sharing without privacy (i.e. like those who user Twitter today). That would open the door for another service which provided a privacy model more like what Facebook started with.

The contrarian view to this argument is more or less based around the thesis that people are on the whole becoming more open with what used to generally be regarded as “private” information – as has generally been the case over the past few years – and that Facebook is ahead of the curve on these changing patterns of global culture and values. This is a debate worth having, and Facebook has commented on the question as much as to say that it believes this is happening. Many smart entrepreneurs believe this to varying degrees, though no service has been able to accomplish as much as Facebook has (with its relatively private settings) to date.

If this does indeed become the case, it is possible that Facebook may be willing to increasingly sacrifice its legacy of privacy, at least partially, for a future of openness. But at the end of the day, we fundamentally believe that there will always be some information that most people just don’t want to share publicly, that Facebook believes that too, and that Facebook will take the steps to preserve that trust if this move ends up causing bigger problems than the company thought. Ultimately, Facebook’s willingness to sacrifice some users’ trust for a future of more openness may not only be due to the fundamental challenges of virality of public content in a mostly-private system, but also due to how well Facebook thinks it can monetize a stream of generally-private data compared to a stream that contains more types of public information, like marketing and news.

The possibility that Facebook has made an over-aggressive product decision due to over-infatuation with more open services, however, is a more plausible option. Facebook has shown, as recently as a few months ago with its launch of the “real-time” stream as the default News Feed, followed by its decision a few months later to go back to the algorithmic News Feed, that it is capable of making suboptimal product decisions due to intense feelings about services like Twitter, yet is also willing to correct them relatively soon afterward when sufficient feedback is in. Despite its investment in data-mining resources and user studies, Facebook’s largest product decisions are generally driven by the visions of those at the top. This had led to a variety of bold initiatives over the years, from the News Feed to Beacon to the Facebook Platform, with a wide range of results. If it turns out that Facebook is wrong about this move, I’d expect them to make similar course corrections in this case as well – even if it means reincarnating its fundamental vision in a new form, like the way Facebook Connect launched a year after Beacon.

Moving Forward

How will all of this play out over the next couple of months, and the next couple of years?

While we may see an uprising of protest movements in the coming weeks, it’s also entirely possible that Facebook’s approach won’t actually cause widespread problems, and that most users will be able to navigate their privacy settings as they intend to. In addition, it’s even possible that not as many users will choose to make their data public as Facebook may have hoped – if that is the case, Facebook could take further steps to encourage or force more user data to be public in the near future.

The most likely result of all of this is somewhere in the middle: some users will open up their privacy settings willingly, and others will do so inadvertently. We assume that Facebook optimized these consequences across a variety of product designs it considered and tested before choosing to go down this path. If Facebook has made a significant miscalculation here, then we’re likely to see substantial numbers of users discovering these problems over the upcoming days, weeks, and months. If that happens, those users will likely change the way they use Facebook – either by publishing less information there, or using it less altogether.

At the end of the day, users will vote with their feet. This was a relatively aggressive move by Facebook to encourage people to open up, and while it will cause some problems for Facebook, Facebook is also acutely aware of the possible outcomes, and is monitoring the results of these changes with a fine toothed comb. If they don’t like what they see, they’ll change course. We’ll of course be monitoring all of the available gauges on Facebook’s traffic and engagement as well.

Ultimately, Facebook is trying to achieve something very difficult: create a system for sharing information that works for both private communication and public publishing, all in one place. While Facebook is in position to serve a variety of users’ needs, it will not be able to be all things to all people.

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13 Responses to “Is Facebook Sacrificing Its Legacy of Privacy for an Open Future?”

  1. Rob Sellen says:

    If it wasn’t thoughtless… why did they do on the sly, IE not actually mention the fact it was opening up the settings even IF the old settings were set to private.

    Mine were private, then I found my photos etc were set to everyone, NEVER did I set them to that, so they did’t give a toss about it.

    They lost trust, supposedly the most important thing.

    After the very public child porn problems they have had here in the uk I am surprised they thought most people would be ok with it.

    The fact that most people use it BECAUSE of the private settings was ignored.

    They did it for ONE reason… to get more traffic for themselves. They don’t care about the users.

  2. Otto says:

    I don’t mind them making things default-public. What I mind is them taking away the option to switch it back to private. Especially when it was private before.

    My Friends List is still public, and there is absolutely no way to prevent this. This is such an serious breach of privacy that I may have to deactivate and close my account with them.

    I’d hate to do it, since I like Facebook Connect and even developed a popular WordPress plugin to make it easier, but I really have no choice. Facebook is exposing information to the world against my expressly stated choices, and are offering me no recourse except to discontinue using their service.

    When is Facebook going to close this horrifying hole in their privacy practices?

  3. Eric von Coelln says:

    Good, thought-provoking stuff. I think that there are two issues here:

    1) expanding one’s network to discover new friends and
    2) better managing the friends you have

    And really, Facebook has created the basics for both of these already.

    Expanding your network: fan groups are a way to interact with others with similar interests, post to boards, etc. But like any relationship, you need a courting period to see if these people could be better friends, people you want to open up more of your profile to. Today, it’s extremely cumbersome to restrict users access to your profile, so something like the recently proposed “Game Friends” that makes it easy to add someone to your social graph, but limit what they see until you feel comfortable in extending it further, could be a way to allow users to feel more comfortable about adding users.

    Managing your communications within your existing friends: Users can easily put their friends in numerous lists — a list for high school friends, work friends, or people who like a specific game. That is one way to filter through the feeds of people, but there currently is no way to interact with that subgroup of people. The ability to target a status feed or photos to a subgroup of your social graph using those lists could be a powerful way to manage both your close relationships and your weak ones.

    In a world where there is too much data, people need very intelligent filters to navigate what they want to read and share. Real world relationships and social graphs are complicated, so no system is going to be perfect in trying to replicate the subtle nuances, but Facebook is in a unique position to create the right filters to empower users. Facebook is in a unique position to empower users to use their own data (posts, photos, etc.) to draw in new friends and communicate the way they want to just those that they want to.

    I guess based on that, pushing users to move to sharing with EVERYONE just seems like they are missing the point of what users eventually want to do. I would be shocked if a large percentage of users changed to EVERYONE (if they knew it was “everyone on Facebook” and not “everyone of my friends”).

  4. Larry says:

    I think everyone can agree that Facebook grew to these proportions because moms, sisters, kids felt secure that what they posted on Facebook was in isolation among their network of friends and family. They posted many updates, comments, photos with this understanding BEFORE Facebook decides to relax their privacy configuration and tickle people into exposing their personal info. Now that they have breached the trust, I expect there will be varying degrees of what I did to self protect your personal stuff. Remove friends that might be more exposure based on their choices in privacy. Remove Fan Pages that you may feel uncomfortable with the world seeing you affiliated with. Remove Photos that say too much. Remove APPS that are like some submarine periscope into our personal data.

    Some may assume new name handles.. some may begin to remove profile info or post alternate info that is not going to identify them. Some may think much more about anything they say or post being in the public domain, that it mutes their openness and Facebook interaction becomes artificial, boring, bland, shallow and losing personal value.

    Besides the loss of trust involved with people suddenly afraid to post to Facebook, there is a component of feeling insulted in the way in which it was initiated, the timing with people busy at holiday time and a perception that the rich kid who started Facebook is greedy and not to be trusted. When his own acceptance of his own new recommended privacy settings were retracted shortly after because of the repercussions his own profile experienced.. We are left with HUH, you want us open but even the creator goofed up exposing himself??

  5. Monique says:

    My problem is that friends of friends is now the most restrictive you can get for “Add me as a Friend”. I prefer to be hidden so, it’s not something I am happy about.

    @Otto: You can make your friends list private again. On your Profile page, click the pencil icon and then uncheck the box for “show friend list to everyone”. Hope that helps you.

  6. David Haddad says:

    Very insightful Justin. Great job

  7. Jeff Widman says:

    this post explained a few missing links for me–whether or not I agree with the move, your explanation helped me understand why they did it…

    previously, I hadn’t seen the strong use case for public in Facebook’s vision.

  8. Lord Bain says:

    Only time will tell who is the winner here, but I can guess now that it won’t be the user..

    Why would facebook want to make such a massive change to it’s privacy policy£?

    Everyone above seems to have missed this,the answer is quite clear when you read between the lines its money…. The more information you give to facebook the more valuable your profile becomes..

    Any AD. man (or woman) will be able to tell you that the more information they have about you the more they can target their ADs. and the more sells they will get, it’s not brain science but a simple fact.

    As facebook grows so do it’s costs, it may be that this change is vital to it’s survival. It would be so refreshing if facebook could actually be honest with it’s users instead of spinning like the politicians.

    The answer will lie with facebook’s users, Will they prove like they have to date that most of them walk blindly into what facebook does without a thought or care or will the facebook privacy posse be able to waken the masses to the dangers that facebook have unleashed with such a blaisé attitude upon them?.

    Big brother has watched you, catergorised you and is now going to sell you…

  9. Greg Anderson says:

    Very interesting post and comments.

    I have to believe that the move was strictly a monetary based decision. Facebook is aiming for Google. When you are going after someone whose stock price is $500 Plus, you need to have deep pockets.

    I agree with Lord Bain’s comment and would add this: I think they could be waiting for the time when it will be very painful for people to disconnect from facebook. When this happens I would not be surprised to see a program like a fee for privatization or fees for fan/group pages. Whether it be just a few bucks a month, it is a numbers game.

    When you look at the number of users on facebook like this, If facebook was a country, You would have China, India, and then facebook in terms of population. That is a huge amount of personal information is available. Either way you look at it, most likely the user will feel the brunt of the decision.

    Plus, How many of the 350,000,000 really read the terms, conditions, or privacy settings? Or have taken the time to learn about them now?

    We will see if this decision becomes the Achilles heel for facebook.

  10. Eve says:

    It is absolutely a monetary decision, these privacy settings. It’s always about money and these corporations make these back deal decisions to increase profits and profit sharing, customers be damned.

    I HATE these new privacy rules and adjustments. A friend who is not even ON fb was tagged in a high school photo of the 3 of us. That photo was posted on the 3rd friend’s fb. The friend (who’s not on fb) HATED that because she HATED that particular picture. I wish people wouldn’t tag people in their pics, especially if they’re not sure if the person they’ve tagged is a. on fb and/or b. wants their pics passed around like a joint!

    I want to punch fb in the mouth for this latest round of foolishness but I thought better of it and went ahead and deactivated my account.

  11. Trust & Context | b r a n t s says:

    [...] Google as “omnivorous” in its quest for indexing data, and when Facebook changes its privacy stance, I wonder whether a trust economy built among individuals and relying on networks for the reach, [...]

  12. Adventures In Facebook: Privacy Warning, Another UI Change Coming « WiredPen says:

    [...] Justin Smith wrote earlier this week: Facebook isn’t satisfied with a mostly-private platform: it wants to be the single place where [...]

  13. Sarina Nicole says:

    After several relatively conflict-free years with FB’s ever changing modus operandi I too deactivated my account this morning. I was shocked to see how much privacy had been taken away from me and what I was now unwittingly sharing even -after- modifying my settings after the initial ‘release’ earlier this month.

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