As the mother of social networks, Facebook has struggled with privacy issues. It hasn’t gotten credit for many of the tools it offers, possibly because many users don’t understand them. So, the bar was raised a while back when CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised “a simpler model for privacy control.”
What happened instead was a very mixed reaction to its new privacy settings, and a fresh PR problem for the company. This time, it’s not just the user backlash that greets any Facebook change. There’s a measure of genuine confusion, doubt about its intentions, and a modest public relations blunder by Zuckerberg himself.
Given the build-up to the unveiling of the new privacy tool, the expectation was that Facebook would help users tighten their controls and limit the information they share with the world. Instead, the opposite message was communicated. It’s not all bad. The transition wizard forces you to examine your settings. That’s good, because many people, like me, signed up ages ago and have forgotten what we did then, if anything.
But instead of offering options based on a user’s current settings, the transition tool encourages its own recommendations. And, guess what? The recommended defaults nearly always urge sharing with “friends of friends” or “everyone.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager for “everyone” to see photos of my young daughter. But, that’s what Facebook recommends.
So does did CEO Mark Zuckerberg. To call attention to the change, Zuckerberg adjusted his own settings. Good PR move, right? But perhaps he didn’t realize that his family photos and contacts would be available to “friends of friends.” Or maybe he was just setting an example in following the recommended defaults. Facebook claims that he always meant to make certain areas accessible to everyone. Yet, mysteriously, after gawker.com and others rifled through them and posted many online, Zuckerberg’s settings were changed to make personal photos off-limits.
I can’t blame Zuckerberg for his about-face. Who wouldn’t want to keep their personal photos safe from prying eyes…and snarky gossip websites? The good news for users is that the online community has jumped into the breach. Within a day or two of the launch of the new settings, hundreds of blog posts appeared with clear, how-to tips and guidelines on protecting privacy and identity on Facebook. And, to be fair, Facebook’s put plenty of information on its own site.
In explaining the default, Facebook told Reuters that making updates available to everyone is “the way the world is moving.” That may be true, but in pushing members to open up online, Facebook is both becoming more Twitter-like, and seeming to bow to pressure to monetize the wealth of personal user information on the site. Both risk eliminating the very thing that many members found so appealing about it in the first place.