Facebook's Delicate Privacy Balance

It's no secret that Facebook's privacy settings are core to giving the company's users a sense of security, but how far can the company push people to open up?

It’s no secret that Facebook’s privacy settings are core to giving the company’s users a sense of security, but how far can the company push people to open up?

The Evolution Of The Profile

If you think about the origins of a social networking profile, Friendster was probably the first widely distributed profile system, beyond the more traditional and less networked AOL profiles. The concept was that profiles were a tool which enabled self expression in a somewhat public manner. There were only a few determining factors to visibility: whether or not you were a user of the site and a friend of the user or a friend of that user’s friend. Users of the site began to understand that becoming someone’s friend resulted in access to many more profiles.

MySpace changed things a bit as self expression was increased through profile customization. Users began figuring out that you could manipulate your page by entering HTML data in form fields not intended to be used for such purposes. The result was that many users of the site wanted to world to see the creative masterpieces (customized profiles) they had developed. Public display of personal information became much more widespread.

Facebook changed things through exclusivity, but they also implemented granular privacy settings which gave the users complete control over what information they wanted to share. While “control” over one’s privacy was an empowering feature, what most people have come to find is that it actually means increased complexity. The result is that for an average user, the best practice is to simply avoid placing anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want anybody else to see.

The Demands Of Advertisers

In a featured article published today by MIT Technology Review, the delicate balance that Facebook has is clearly articulated.

Conventional word of mouth reaches only a limited number of people. Facebook, where each of an estimated 600 million active users is connected to an average of 130 friends, changes all that by lending personal recommendations enormous reach. After all, anything a user does on the site can be broadcast automatically to all that person’s friends. “This is in many ways the Holy Grail of marketing: making your customers your marketers,” says Sandberg, who joined Facebook in early 2008 after building up Google’s ad sales operation from four people to 4,000. “For the first time, you can do word-of-mouth marketing at massive scale.”

To put it another way, when we use Facebook we no longer just view the ad; we become the ad. It’s a notion that disturbs some people, especially as Facebook continues to challenge social norms about privacy and use of personal data. Indeed, one reason advertisers love Facebook is that ads can be precisely targeted to specific audiences on the basis of their stated interests, location, “likes,” and much more.

Making you the ad is definitely the “holy grail” of marketing, and right now Facebook is attempting to accomplish this through its sponsored stories. They take the self expression that users have learned throughout the years while using various social networks, and turn that into paid advertisements. It’s an interesting concept, but in a world where many users aren’t completely comfortable sharing every detail of their life, it’s up to the company to figure out how to create a product where users feel comfortable sharing more.

Balancing Simplicity And Control

Right now, new features still result in new privacy settings, adding additional complexity. For Facebook’s business model to thrive, the social network needs to either make the system much simpler, or continue to walk the extremely thin line that it continues to walk each and every day. The downside of continuing on the existing path is that services with easier privacy settings will emerge.

While none can replace all the value provided by Facebook, the information shared within new easy-to-use products will include the exact information that advertisers on Facebook are looking to reach.

While the short-term solution is to acquire external threats, Facebook’s inherit weakness will remain unless the product can be simplified. Perhaps at the end, complexity is a fact of life with social relationships, and thus Facebook must remain as is. With the more than 600 million users on Facebook, it’s hard to argue that Facebook is too complex for people to understand.

One thing is certain: the balance between product simplicity and user control will continue to define Facebook as the company looks to fulfill the demands of advertisers while keeping users actively engaged.