With New Privacy Settings, Facebook Wants Best of Both Public and Private Worlds

By Eric Eldon Comment

Facebook is starting to walk its 350 million monthly active users through a new interface for privacy settings today. Each user will see a window when they log in to Facebook, directing them to a page that asks them to confirm a new set of options for who can see things like their photos and status updates.

The big picture here is that Facebook is trying to balance a complex set of use cases so that people will use it — and not other services — for all sorts of public and private sharing. One minute, the average user might want to share a status update with the world and the next minute they might want to share a set of baby pictures with just their family.


We should note that Facebook first announced most of these settings in July. But there are a few very big new aspects to the changes today. Here, we’ll discuss how it all works, and how the moves fit in with Facebook’s larger goals.

First, after clicking through the initial window, users are taken to the new privacy settings page. It shows a range of menu options, letting users decide what types of information will be shared with whom. The company has pre-selected a choice for each category. If the user has, in their previous Facebook privacy settings, selected a more restrictive set of options than what Facebook makes the new default, then Facebook will pre-select “Old Settings” in the new options.


Today on a call with the press, Facebook estimated that only 15 to 20 percent of all users have previously made changes to their privacy settings. This means that for around 280 million people, Facebook will pre-select the new options. And, in some cases, Facebook is tacitly pushing users to share more with the world.

Facebook Pushes “Posts I Create” to “Everyone”

In the first section of the new privacy settings page, users see the following categories: About Me, Family and Relationships, Work and Education, and “Posts I Create” (which includes status updates, links, photos, videos and notes). In this section, each user has two options: Either stick with their old settings or let “everyone,” as in everyone on the internet, see the information in each category.


The other information is pretty standard. The really interesting part is that Facebook has put “Posts I Create” into this category — there’s no option to, by default, share “Posts I Create” with just, say, your friends.

However, to balance this push, Facebook is also rolling out a new, more granular set of ways to change settings in the publisher (for those not familiar with the term, this is the big window for sharing things that you see at the top of the news feed on the home page, and at the top of each user profile). Even if you have all of your status updates, photos, etc. set to be shared with everyone, you can still decide to be more restrictive for each piece of content as you share it. As with the other changes, the core of this interface was announced much earlier this year.


Publisher privacy options, as the company discussed in July, will now include not only everyone, but “Friends of Friends,” “Only Friends” or “Customize.” The last option lets you choose a specific friend list or verified network to share the content with. So if you have a friend list of family or college friends created already, you can choose the list and only share your special photos with them.

Note that verified networks include workplace and school networks, and can only be accessed by people with email domains for those types of networks (like “ericeldon@company.com” or “ericeldon@college.edu”). Regional networks, as the company has been saying for a long time, are gone.

Another important clarification from Facebook today: Users under 18 years of age will automatically have “everyone” restricted to friends, friends of friends and verified networks.

Lots of Information Will Stay Private

In contrast to “Posts I Create,” Facebook is making other new privacy options naturally more restrictive.

The second section of the new page shows Photos and Videos of Me, Birthday, and Religious and Political Views with the option to share either under “Old Settings” or under “Friends of Friends.” In other words, Facebook is not trying to get people to share any of this information with everyone on the Internet.

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The third section is even more restrictive. Email Addresses and IM, Phone Numbers and Address are either shared under “Old Settings” or with “Friends.” There’s no new option to share this information with Everyone or even Friends of Friends.

These section options show that Facebook both wants people sharing day-to-day content with the world, but keeping much of their vital real-life information private.

Other parts of the new privacy settings interface go through great lengths to explain everything to users. Each category of information includes a question-mark icon, which, if clicked on explains in more detail what exactly is contained within the category. The bottom of the page includes links to learn more about Facebook’s privacy policies, as well as a reminder about what sort of information is shared with third-party applications. (However, on the call today, the company made clear that its planned changes for app access to user data will be separately rolled out “early next year.”) After selecting options, each user is taken to a page asking them to confirm the choices they’ve just made.

One final tweak we should mention is that users cannot get out of going through these new settings. The first time the user sees the initial window about the settings, they have the option to skip it. But after 24 hours, they’ll no longer be able to skip it.

Conclusion: More Privacy, but Also More Content for Everyone

Facebook’s focus on having all shared content go, by default, to everyone is a crucial part of its bigger plans. Connect, the company’s tool for letting other services access Facebook user data and share back to Facebook, relies on a lot of this shared information being public. For example, the live-streaming widget lets users watch videos of events — like President Barack Obama’s inauguration or Michael Jackson’s funeral — and share their comments with everyone else watching it by updating their status. If lots of users were to put their sharing settings to only allow friends to see their status updates, there would be fewer status updates for everyone to read. This would decrease engagement on Connect.

So today’s announcement is really about Facebook trying to have it all: People’s real-life, very sensitive personal information and relationships, as well as their very public activity.