In a blog post at Facebook, founder Mark Zuckerberg noted that these are only part of the changes – privacy settings will be simplified so you only allow access to one of three groups: friends, friends and their friends, or everyone. While everyone is talking about how this change will streamline privacy settings and change the way you allow people to access your profile and the information on it, and how it’s removing the concept of “networks” as an outmoded way of creating an artificial sphere of influence (Zuckerberg correctly points out it’s clearly a holdover from when Facebook was organized by participating schools), there’s a couple of things – namely how the new privacy settings will allow you to choose who sees what as you post it – that I think are worth talking about.
Let’s dive in behind the jump.
When I wrote a while back that social networking, for all of its potential to bring people closer together and expand your circle of friends to include people you haven’t met but likely share interests with, really just serves to depress many of us and cause of to be more restrictive and closed off about our lives, I was thinking specifically of Facebook. As it is today, it clearly encourages us to reconnect with people we’ve fallen out of touch with but simultaneously doesn’t give us the privacy and capability to control the message we send – even at its most restrictive, either everyone who’s your “friend” sees it, or you just don’t post it.
Now there’s a flip side to that argument – if you’re going to engage in social networking, why would you “befriend” people you don’t want to share your life with? There are a number of arguments on both sides there that I hit in that previous column; I don’t want to rehash them here – but what I see from Facebook’s new privacy rules is that they’re working to give us that flexibility in their new updates.
That means that I can add all of my old high school friends to my friends list because they found me and they want to stay in touch with me, or alternatively because they found me and want to see what I amounted to in life, but when I post about the times I’m happy, sad, or have a major life event that I don’t really think is the business of someone I haven’t spoken to in 10 years, I can control which of my friends sees it. That is, if you already organize your friends list in groups – you can have a group for close personal friends, and limit those kinds of updates to them alone. Similarly, you can expand your groups to include a number of other people who you’re comfortable getting other updates about your life, like a new band you discovered or a concert you’re planning to go to.
Similarly, you can segregate groups so they only see certain things. You can create a “coworkers” group where all of your office friends can see that you’re planning to go to the company holiday party, and then see the pictures from the event the next Monday – but you can hide all of that from your friends who already know you hate your job.
This kind of flexibility is the kind of thing that will encourage people who have different messages for different groups of friends – like most of us – to use the service even more as a lifestreaming tool. This way you don’t have to make the choice of a: you don’t care and you don’t mind everyone seeing all of your updates regardless of their content or b: you’re very selective about the velvet rope around your “friends” list or c: you just don’t post anything you’re not comfortable with every last one of them seeing.
Taking that difficult choice away from Facebook users will encourage a number of people who are already using the service, myself included, to really dig in and use it more and share more of their lives – and it’ll probably allow more people who already have made the choice (choice a, of course) to be more selective about who sees what – even as they choose to post more frequently because they have the freedom to.
I think this is a discussion that we’re missing as the announcements come out, and whether this kind of selective privacy feature emerges immediately out of the new privacy settings that Zuckerberg is talking about on his blog remains to be seen, but I hope they do.