Thursday, September 14, 2006

User Control and Facebook

recently seen after logging into my facebook:

"X joined the group Nobody Cares That You Want the Old Facebook Back."

and so begins our stroll into hard-to-control presentation of your life on facebook. i had been thinking about this a lot, and we had a facebook discussion in my computer-mediated communication class, which grant and i followed-up on after class. i've put together my thoughts below.


for those of you not in the know: facebook launched a feature which automatically publishes to your friends a news feed of the things you've been up to on facebook (and conversely, you also have this feed of what your friends are up to). for instance, you learn when your friends add new friends, join groups, change their profile, change their relationship status, etc..

but hold on, you say... "change their relationship status!" yes! "X is now single."

sort of freaky eh?

well, maybe you feel this is somewhat less freaky when you learn that facebook updated the feature to include an opt-out policy? i don't think it should be less freaky. in fact, maybe it should be more disconcerting if you care about control of your data and privacy.


an issue for me is that the "resolution" was to add opt-out ability, and make opt-in the default. i think the way facebook did this falls into the collection of actions by large companies that make your data functionally less private, without adequately conveying that to the user. it also shifts the norm of online interactions and our expectations of the servers we interact with (ie this feed stuff will become the norm on facebook, just as gmail contextual ads became the accepted gmail thing).

facebook is about broadcasting yourself to your friends and people in your network, but not in this uncontrollable way. sure, in the "Old Facebook" people could scrape your page and determine when and what things were changing. but by and large people interacted with tailored presentations. now, with these feeds, a user's presentation on facebook is at least partially out of their control.

wait, you say, that user who misses their control can change their options and opt-out. of course they can, but how many will? and how many will get burned because they didn't (i already know stories of people who have been burned)? and when will we consider that we're making friendly surveillance the norm?

frankly i feel weird seeing this feed because i don't know if this is what my friend intended. did they want me to know that they recently added "candy" to their favorite activities?

facebook could have introduced this feature differently. the way they introduced this feature (no options) and then their resolution (opt-out) goes to show how little respect is afforded to users when it comes to who controls the use of their personal information.


Neha said...

facebook could have introduced this feature differently. the way they introduced this feature (no options) and then their resolution (opt-out) goes to show how little respect is afforded to users when it comes to who controls the use of their personal information.

I disagree. I think you often are a big proponent of the "make it opt-in instead of opt-out" way of doing things, because you inherently think 1) the user is stupid and many will want to opt out but won't know how 2) users own their own data.

Of course there's also the fact that even in teh case of a smart user, in between when the feed is turned on and when a user logs in stuff will show that they don't want, and that's bad, but let's ignore that time delta for now.

Facebook owns all of this data. It's very clearly in the TOS. Yes, they rely on their users using the site and creating data to remain viable, but the fact of the matter is that they own it.

I think that the feed is really cool, and I think it's important that they made it opt-out instead of opt-in because if they made it opt-in it creates a whole different meaning to your feed: it's the stuff you actively *chose* to publish about yourself. You're being an exhibitionist. People know you had to take an *action* to make that stuff show up.

Whereas if it's opt-out, it's just the default. No exhibitionism, you're not a weirdo who turned it on. Everyone has it on! This is important!

And I think it's a really cool thing to have on. It changes the nature of what people do with Facebook, as evidenced by all these new groups relating to it (like the one you mentioned) and people adding statuses remarking upon the new feeds (one I saw said, "X is stalking you through your mini-feed." very cute).

Now people have *very* fine grained control over what they show or not, and what they choose to show or not show will become a huge part of their overall Facebook profile. Now they no longer just have the flat changes they make to their profile, they have a history of those changes over time. That's a whole new dimension! I find this very cool. I say kudos to the Facebook team. Users are inherently opposed to change, I think people will get used to it.

omar said...

i don't disagree that facebook owns the data -- look, google owns all my queries too, and i'd be pretty unhappy if they published them to the world a la AOL. because this is a change in *expectations*

furthermore, i'm not saying that the default needs to be opt-in, necessarily. i'm saying that options could be presented to the user, maybe sensitive broadcast data could be opt-in. a little intro ui and options around this feature would help a lot, imo.

i don't deny that users will get used to the facebook feature, or that some people find it cool, or that it's useful along some dimension. i just regret the default surveillance. if facebook was this way from day one, that would be different.. you would've known going in what to expect. the fact of the matter is that now they have all the data, have people strongly tied to the service, and are acting as dictators. yes, they *can* do this, it's all their data, their servers, etc etc.. but should they treat users this way?

Neha said...

well, i think that it's impossible to predict all the cool features a site might want to implement in the future, so you always have to think about how to best introduce these new things to a group of users who are used to a certain old way of doing things. having these features there from day 1 was not an option.

That said, they DO have a cool interface and a way to hide stuff or turn it off by default!!! have you explored this yet? Log into your facebook account and poke around.

Also, it's not clear to me that any of this data is "sensitive." It's all there already! And yes, you are introducing the timeline of changes, but I wouldn't call this "sensitive."

Anonymous said...

I finally joined facebook... and realized i have no friends.

James said...

I finally joined facebook... and realized i have no friends.