Analysis: Facebook’s New Privacy Settings a Major (and Risky) Step Toward Openness

fblogosmallThe upcoming changes to Facebook’s privacy settings will allow users to control who they share information with every time they post a piece of content to the site. While Facebook executives noted they want to “simplify” the process in which users share content with specific friends, the new settings are most likely aimed at making the site more public in nature.

In our detailed guide to managing your privacy on Facebook, you can see how the controls currently operate today. In general, you can best control the content people see by utilizing Friend Lists and the “customize” feature in the privacy console, which users access by choosing “privacy settings” in the upper right corner of the homepage.

For example, if you created a Friend List comprised of work colleagues, you could prevent that entire group from seeing your Status Messages. By clicking on “customize” under the status messages category on the privacy settings page, you can give all your friends access to your status messages, except certain friends or a friend list you choose.

Are the controls complicated today? It depends on who you ask. Media reports (and now Facebook) like to call the current controls “complex,” but they’re really not if you spend a few minutes using them. The issue really might be a lack of awareness of their existence. According to the New York Times, less than a quarter of Facebook users regularly change them.

The current settings do have a cumbersome flaw, however. Say, for instance, that the majority of the time you don’t want to share status messages with your work friends, but that occasionally you have one you’d like them to see. To do so, you would have to revisit the privacy console page to give them access. Presuming you’d want to revert back to blocking their access again after that particular post, you would have to visit the privacy console page yet again.

Under the new privacy controls, you can make a decision with whom you share each individual post, without the need to revisit the privacy settings page. Now, you will be able to select whether you share it with everyone, friends of friends, just friends, or “custom” (specific friends or groups of friends you choose). This is a big step toward greater openness, and, if implemented properly, it delivers on Facebook’s promise to simplify the process.

But the new privacy controls also seem to reveal Facebook’s desire to more aggressively compete with completely open services like Twitter. Specifically, the “everyone” feature will make more posts available for anyone on the Web to see. While executives said such posts won’t be indexable by search engines yet, we expect that they will be soon.

Conclusion

The ability for users to share with “everyone” will be one of the most significant changes Facebook has ever undergone as a site — and it’s a risk. Since Facebook’s inception, many users have enjoyed the ability to share with their friends and networks rather than the whole public web in general.  It seems unlikely to us that attitude will change overnight.

Furthermore, how Facebook sets the default for these new settings will matter a great deal. An “everyone” default will surely lead to people sharing information unknowingly. It will lead to user backlash that could be more widespread than the site changes of past that, for all the noise, only drew the attention of a small minority — mainly media, privacy organizations and industry followers. On Twitter, the presumption is that information will be public. On Facebook, people assume they are sharing between friends. Changing that paradigm too suddenly or without very clear user education and explanation could have massive repercussions for Facebook’s future.