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Void Rage: Unable to Muster Facebook Anger

Following is a guest post from Jon Loomer, offering a different perspective on Facebook’s privacy changes.

Jon Loomer’s career has evolved from overseeing Fantasy Basketball product, content, marketing and promotion for the National Basketball Association to his current position as VP of Strategic Marketing for a non-profit. His focus is on social media strategy, Facebook and mobile development. You can follow him on Twitter @JonLoomer or read his blog focused on the subject of baseball atTippingPitches.blogspot.com. The following opinions are his only and do not reflect those of his affiliations.

It took a few weeks, but internet rage over Facebook’s Like button and latest privacy ramifications is in full swing. Bloggers swinging at Facebook’s knee caps with aluminum bats seem to outnumber those who come to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s defense 20:1. And if a blogger does post a defense, duck and cover as soon as you hit “publish” because the rage will bubble up from the comments section.

So when Peter asked me if I’d be interested in writing a guest post on his blog in defense of Facebook’s changes, I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I’m absolutely flattered that he’d ask. On the other, I’m uncomfortable taking a hugely unpopular stand. The position is so unpopular that it ventures into “controversial” territory. Can I post anonymously?

I’m not a controversial dude. And any controversial opinions I have, I tend to keep relatively private, restricted to my inner circle.

But here’s the irony: I share these “controversial” opinions on Facebook. And I only share them with a small group of friends by using lists. But to the outer circle, I’m a harmless guy without much flare for the dramatic.

You must be outraged!

I may avoid controversy, but Facebook feeds off of it. Everywhere I turn, I read another blog telling me how angry I should be with Facebook’s dangerous disregard for my privacy. And because of this, a small part of me is trying to convince the rest of me that I, too, need to be outraged. But I can’t conjure up the energy.

The Utility of Facebook
First a little background on me as a Facebook user. I’ve used Facebook since it rolled out to the non-student public in 2006. My company partnered with Facebook on an application for that initial launch. So I’ve been there from “the beginning.”

And I’ve also been there through a multitude of changes, some vertical and some lateral. No matter how major the changes were, they were controversial. And the uproars increased as the Facebook population screamed past 100, 200, 300 and 400 Million.

This undoubtedly has something to do with my lack of rage now. I’ve become numb to the anger. Whether it’s a Facebook change or any other controversial revelation, I try to remain level headed. Before I react negatively to Facebook’s changes in particular, I try them out for a while. Think about the end game and why they’d make the change. And when I read a rumor about how Facebook is going to charge a monthly fee, or that they allow pedophiles to access my profile, I research first.

While I haven’t agreed with every change Facebook has made, I still recognize that they have made gradual improvements over the course of the past four years that have resulted in a much better overall product. The navigation is vastly improved, and I have far greater control now over who sees what and when.

Sure, some things (name, profile photo, gender, current city, networks, friends, pages) are available to the public now. But these are not things that bother me. You could already pull up photos of my handsome mug (hereherehere and here) by running a Google search. I’d hope my gender is obvious. And although I did scale down my pages after they became publicly viewable, I am now comfortable sharing those interests with anyone who cares.

After that, I’ve always used my privacy settings. Status by status, link by link, photo by photo, I pick and choose my audience. There are times when I keep what I share to a small audience of “Good Friends.” There are others when I share with all of my friends, some of whom I don’t know. And still others, I’ll feel the need to share with “Everyone,” as in — shudder — everyone on the Internet.

But I also use Twitter. I maintain a blog. So there are certain things I’m used to sharing with everyone. And when I share with the world, I have a reason for doing so.

It’s because of this control that I find Facebook extremely useful. I can contact just about anyone from my 500+ connections in an instant. I can promote my blog or share my son’s lemonade stand to raise money for childhood cancer research. Or I can simply goof off casually with friends. But it’s all controlled.

I also control what it is that third party developers see and what my friends can share about me. Developers can access everything that is already available to the public (which isn’t a whole lot), and my friends can’t share much more than that about me either. So I leave enough available for most useful applications to work, but without giving away more than I am comfortable.

The New Features
So all that said, Facebook rolled out a few features recently that were said to impact my privacy. I personally found them to be brilliant. I knew there would be backlash (there always is), but I admit I didn’t expect anything at this scale.

The Like Button: This addition has essentially made millions of web pages an extension of Facebook. The collage of my friends’ faces acts as a welcome mat at the front door of sites that are new to me. My friend likes this? Let me check it out. My friend says I should go to this restaurant? Not a bad idea. These are things that I would have otherwise seen on Facebook, but now I see them at the source to provide more relevance.

Not only is the Like button good for me as a user, but it is also good for me from the business side — both on my blog (loosely defined as a business) and my organization’s web pages. I’ve quickly realized that users are much more inclined to click a Like button than go through the process of retweeting or even sharing through Facebook. It’s easy. It’s awesome.

Instant Personalization: Policies aside (we’ll get to this later), I love the idea. I can go to Pandora and immediately access music that I like or my friends like. I can go to Yelp and immediately find a restaurant that they recommend. There is so much to like here. It makes the web a warmer, more social, and more relevant place.

Updated Privacy Settings: This has caused a stir, but it really wasn’t a problem for me. As I mentioned before, I’ve always been on top of my privacy. So when the new privacy settings were rolled out, I took my time to make sure everything was set up the way I wanted. While some may claim that Facebook pulled a fast one on us, it’s not as if this was done discretely without you knowing. You were forced to go through the new settings and verify. Might it have been a bit overwhelming? Maybe. But if you care about your privacy like I do, it’s something you should understand.

Community Pages: This one has been run more on the down low because it is a beta product. Thousands of community pages have been created by Facebook and some general pages have been converted (often to the dismay of the administrator). Unlike the typical Facebook page, there is no admin control (at least for now) of the community page. It is, apparently, intended to be a wiki of some sort, with information fed by people’s content who like the page. It’s not clear yet what value, if any, these pages have, but the usage is likely to evolve.

The Confusion
Part of Facebook’s problem is that this new Facebook-centered web can be a bit startling at first. When you go to another website, you don’t expect to see a list of your Facebook friends who like something. You don’t expect a website you did not previously visit to know what you like and don’t like to make recommendations. But people need to simply look at the web as an extension of Facebook, particularly when using social plug-ins. Instead of viewing that your friend likes an ESPN article in your Facebook feed, you see it on ESPN.com. It’s not as if the world can see this information. What you see is different than what I see. And your privacy settings still apply, which may not be immediately obvious.

There is also confusion because there are very few blogs and articles being written on this subject that equally weigh the issue. Many make it seem as though all of our private content is at risk; that no matter how we adjust our privacy settings, everything is available to the world. They are biased towards negativity and rage because that’s what brings traffic. We are told to either delete our Facebook profiles or simply put them on lock-down, preventing everyone from seeing anything, disallowing instant personalization, and blocking as much information from third parties as possible.

The reality, at least as far as I can tell, is that the latest changes won’t harm you if you are already on top of your privacy settings and careful about what you share. But based on the media coverage, it would be easy for someone to overreact and go with the flock.

Show Me
This is my biggest problem with the outrage over Facebook’s changes: Almost everything I read is in abstract terms. Please, show me the danger of Facebook’s changes. You’ve probably seen this example of Facebook users who have told the world, knowingly or not, that they have cheated on a test. Well, I can do the same with Twitter users. What’s the point?

Maybe I should feel bad for people who unknowingly publish embarrassing information about themselves for the world to see, but I don’t. For many reasons.

First, let’s not fall for the claim that Facebook made this radical change from closed to open overnight. The latest change did allow search engine indexing of your public profile (if you kept the box checked to allow it) or of that information you shared with “everyone,” but keep in mind that the former definition of “everyone” was all users on Facebook. So you went from sharing embarrassing photos and information about yourself to 400 Million people to the entire world. Eh.

And again, Facebook forced us — all of us — to confirm our privacy settings. Did you ignore them? If you did, should I feel bad for you? Eh.

I understand that I don’t represent all Facebook users, and that’s a very good argument for anyone opposed to the changes. Most people do not spend the time refining their privacy. And many may simply be confused by the settings.

Still, if you’re confused, just restrict everything as much as possible. I keep seeing stats on number of settings and options, but if you just set everything to “Friends” (and your friends truly are your friends), you’ll be fine. Assuming, of course, you’re still careful about what you share.

Everyone needs their own global privacy policy, and this goes beyond Facebook. When you share, do so with the understanding that, even with the best possible settings, any friend can simply copy and paste your status; or save and repost your photo; or simply post a photo or story about something you did. No privacy settings can prevent stupid activity from being seen. It will eventually get out.

That said, I am leaving the door open slightly for the possibility that Facebook has given others far more access to my private life than I know. If this is the case, show me. Show me the application that could potentially harm me.

The Policies
While I enjoy using Facebook and am not in the “delete my profile” community, I admit that I’m not all that comfortable with the entire path that Facebook has taken. I enjoy the new features and am fine with the current privacy settings. However, I do think that they need to be better at communicating changes. They need to be better at communicating, from page to page, what is viewable and what isn’t. Go above and beyond to explain the user’s privacy. Smack them in the face with what audience they are sharing. While I do think Facebook has done a better job at communicating changes than they are given credit, they need to do more.

And I also agree that opt-ins instead of opt-outs are the best policy, particularly with a potentially controversial change. If you are so sure someone is going to want something, first make the compelling argument. Encourage them to check it. Show them what they’re missing if they don’t.

Even so, I firmly believe that putting too much focus on Facebook takes away the important focus on the user’s responsibility to do everything they can to protect themselves. As mentioned before, users needed to agree to each change. We need to be vigilant and understand the ramifications. And if you are too lazy to do the research to understand it, at the very least you need to be more careful about what you post.

How Facebook Can Get Out of this Mess
Just as I am not completely in Facebook’s corner on some of their policies, I also see ways for them to get out of this PR firestorm. While I don’t have much sympathy for the ignorant user, Facebook is still responsible for communicating that these are positive changes.

If I were Facebook, I’d do the following:

  • Put a My Privacy: Who Sees This? link on Community Page by “Related Posts by Friends”
  • Put a My Privacy: Who Sees This? link within social plug-ins, where feasible
  • Put a My Privacy: Who Sees This? link on “trusted third party” sites that implement instant personalization
  • Provide video and commentary explaining some of the changes, answering the criticisms, showing the user why the changes are good for them, and acknowledging that those changes are not for everyone, providing an easy explanation of how to protect themselves
  • Provide regular webinars or tours on features and use of lists to everyone, not just those with the proper page connections
  • Make Instant Personalization opt-in

The last item may be the trickiest since users have already technically opted in to instant personalization when they went through their new privacy settings for the first time. But considering this project is technically a pilot, there’s no need to automatically opt everyone in. Do what they did before. Bring up a box explaining what instant personalization is. Provide videos. Explain why it is good for them. Explain potential risks. Shoot down conspiracies. And then force the user to check the box if they want it.

In Conclusion
While I am not surprised by user backlash as a result of the most recent Facebook changes, I did not expect this level of outrage from mainstream media and technically savvy, intelligent people. With that in mind, it is important that we all do the following:

  • Research and understand the benefits and risks involved
  • Weigh those risks and benefits with the way that each person uses Facebook
  • Understand and actively utilize Facebook’s privacy settings
  • Establish a global “privacy setting,” understanding that if we are concerned about privacy we should always be careful about what we share

In the end, it’s personal. These changes are likely to affect me differently than they do you. Maybe Facebook is just too much of a hassle for you. Maybe Facebook does not offer enough benefit to you to actively manage a sometimes confusing control panel of privacy settings. Maybe you do have reason to be outraged. But I don’t believe this feeling is universal. We all need to rationally weigh the risks and benefits and decide what is best for us.