Is Facebook Sacrificing Its Legacy of Privacy for an Open Future?

Last week, Facebook launched a major initiative geared towards getting users to share more information more openly. In the few days since, many people have criticized Facebook’s move as misleading, though it’s too early to tell if a significant number of users will be upset enough by the changes to complain or change their actual behavior. More broadly, however, the move reflects deeper changes in Facebook’s longer term product strategy. What were Facebook’s motivations for this “privacy” initiative, and what’s likely to happen as a result? Let’s take a look.

Facebook’s Privacy Foundations

Facebook’s privacy model has always been foundational to the trust users put in the company. While other services like MySpace have encouraged a more “open” way of sharing information and building an online identity, Facebook’s default information-sharing settings have always been relatively private. As a result, hundreds of millions of users around the world today routinely do things on Facebook that only a few years ago would be unthinkable, like parents commenting on their children’s status updates, and millions of people uploading thousands of personal photos to the Internet. Without Facebook’s historically strict privacy settings, much of what has happened over the last few years would not have been possible.

Privacy is not only foundational to the trust users put in Facebook, it’s a fundamental part of users’ conceptual models of how Facebook works. It’s what makes people feel safe sharing personal information. Many people just don’t feel comfortable putting their status updates or sonogram photos in the public Internet archive forever.

The Limitations of a Default-Private Model

However, while many people don’t want to share much information publicly online today, some do. For those people, Facebook’s historical default privacy settings did not make it the right product for them. As a result, Facebook recognized that its default-private model made it vulnerable to other services with default-public models, like Twitter. Even though only a relatively few people may want to share in a predominantly public way, many people may want to share some (arguably increasing) subset of things more openly, and many people are interested in consuming a variety of different types of public information.

In addition, the default-private model might actually slow down the spread of memes compared to more open systems (though we don’t have access to data necessary to back this up). The fundamental nature of a News Feed comprised of mostly private content makes “resharing” on Facebook a less common/normal behavior than “retweeting” on Twitter. While this dynamic keeps the content in the stream more pure, it also means that there may be fundamental limits to the amount of reshared public content that might ever come through the stream.

In other words, there are several use cases in which some users – and Facebook – would get more value out of a more open system.

This put Facebook in a tough position: if it believed that a more open system would create more overall value in the end, how could it move from a default-private model to a more open one? There was no painless way to enable even the people who would want to be more open to change their privacy settings en masse quickly. Facebook had to choose whether to let the historically private settings ride, or to make a push to get people to open up – even at the risk of losing some users’ trust.

Facebook’s Calculated Move

While Facebook’s decision to launch this openness initiative has been called a lot of things, one thing it can’t be called is thoughtless. Facebook was well aware of the implications of making this push, but ultimately felt that it was vital to its future to shift its default privacy model more toward open sharing. Facebook initially announced its intentions to put people through this “privacy transition” in July, even so much as showing a mockup at that time that looks nearly exactly like the “privacy transition wizard” that people saw last week – though with most of the options set to “Old Settings” instead of “Everyone,” as most people ended up getting.

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