The latest changes to the way Facebook structures a user’s profile and the alterations in how third parties can access information inside your individual profile are causing a lot of uproar in the online community, with good reason. I’m not even going to attempt to wade through the labyrinth of descriptions of how things have changed on Facebook, because the main point is that — at first glance – it’s too darn confusing for most users, which makes it difficult, if not impossible for them to judge how they should approach the changes. Yes, it sounds simple — just “like” the things you like and that way you can share with your friends your interests and recent actions.
However, users will now find that instead of text describing the things they like, there will be a link to a page about that thing. To Facebook, this is about improving “connections” — you follow a link and will not only see information about the item, but also who else “likes” it. What they have underestimated, based on the comments posted, is the degree to which ordinary people don’t particularly like [no pun intended] major changes being made to how they use their gadgetry and the online entities they have taken into their personas with no warning or preparation. It also appears that many users are finding it difficult to easily un derstand exactly what Facebook has done, and therefore are losing a lot of the information and what they perceive as “work” that they’ve put into setting up their Facebook profiles and info pages.
And underlying that simple directive is an intricate set of privacy controls that need to be applied in a precise manner in order to achieve the desired effect. And trying to figure out how to get that desired effect is a serious challenge to a lot of Facebook users.
I would have thought that the recent problems Google had with the negative reaction to the introduction of Buzz would have been a warning sign to Facebook that an all-put blitz on the boundaries of privacy at this point in time may not be the best move. I’m sure they felt that a lot of time and effort had gone into preparing for this change, so they had to follow through, but to me — admittedly a casual Facebook user at best — that was a huge miscalculation. The goal of trying to better judge intent and improve connections between people to provide them with the information they are looking for can only be stretched so far. It’s kind of like the idea of individual “space” — a person will tolerate others getting physically closer and closer to them until they reach the point that their cultural upbringing sets off a warning sign in their mind that an approaching person is about to violate their personal space. As an individual, we may be happy that when we search online or look around at things that interest us, that search engines and social properties are providing us with some of the things we’re looking for without us having to even ask, but at some point, we get that little warning sign that says to us, “Whoa, how did they know I’d want to see that?” and we become uncomfortable.
Actually, the part that concerns me the most is the increased access that third parties will have to information on an individual’s Facebook page. One still will need to allow a third party to access your Facebook info, but now they will have access to a lot more of that info than previously. Facebook’s warnings to users to take that into account when giving access is almost like closing the barn door after the horse has already run off down the pasture. It’s going to be difficult for people to remember exactly what they might be opening up to third parties when they agree to provide them with Facebook data, but more problematic will be trying to remember which third parties you may have allowed access to in the past that now you would not like to have access to the expanded amount of info they will have access to. As much as in a perfect world it would be this way, hardly anyone in reality keeps a running record of every website they register on for some reason or another.
So far, this doesn’t look like a win for Facebook. As a casual user of the property, it probably won’t affect me — but for the estimated 50% of Facebook users who access it each day, this is a big deal. And the initial reaction is not positive. But with that reaction be enough to force Facebook to take a step back, just as Google did? Let’s hope this, plus the recent Google Buzz snafu, is a lesson learned for social media sites — it’s not all about the algorithm or objects; these are people with complex needs and complex views of privacy both online and off. Balancing their needs with the needs of business will never be easy, but it always has to err on the side of caution so as to not upset the delicate balance between what people want and what they will put up with.