Last month Facebook.com prompted its 350 million users to update their privacy settings. Given the option to keep their old privacy settings or allow everyone to view their entire profile — the new default setting — Facebookers encountered a subtle but important shift in the website’s approach to handling its users’ personal information.
You may be thinking at this point, “What’s going on? And should I really care? Facebook is just a harmless website. Also, my Farmville is doing very well.” But these changes to the privacy settings are not quite what they seem and indicate a big move for the website.
Facebook’s new privacy settings have been touted as “new tools to control your experience,” which, according to the official Facebook blog, is simpler and designed to give you more control over each part of your profile.
The change over to the new privacy model began with a “transition tool,” represented by a screen that promoted selecting the “everyone” feature. This was Facebook’s preference, stating on the official blog that they recommend you make information contained in your “about me” section, which contains information such as where you work and where you go to school “available to everyone.”
If you instead chose to keep your old settings, you could be forgiven for not noticing that your level of privacy was not quite what it used to be, as some privacy controls from the older version have simply been removed. For example, anybody can now see your profile picture. If you liked the fact that your old settings hid your membership in the “The Guy Who Pokes the Fire On the Fireplace Channel” or “John Mayer” fan page, you’re also out of luck, since now any Facebook stalker can find out your secret obsession. Other controls, like the option to display your friends list are still there, only moved around. Unless you have found the pencil beside “Friends” on your profile page, opened it and unchecked “Show Friend List to Everyone,” your entire friends list will be visible.
You might be wondering aloud what was wrong with the old setup, and why Facebook would want to do this? Barry Schnitt, the director of corporate communications and public policy at Facebook explained in an interview with ReadWriteWeb.com, “By making the world more open and connected, we’re expanding understanding between people and making the world a more empathetic place.”
So, in a nutshell, Facebook believes the whole world is becoming more open and your comfort with sharing your personal information should evolve with it. As a sign of faith in the new “everyone” privacy model Facebook is actively encouraging, even the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, resisted the urge to shut out strangers and loosened some of his profile’s privacy settings; did you know he was a fan of Katy Perry? Perhaps privacy is relative, after all.
The increased openness works for Facebook financially since increased access to information on user profiles translated into more hits from search engines, which increases value of the site. As providers of content for social networking businesses like Facebook, this makes it even more important for every user to take ownership of their information and what they choose to make public.
If Facebook has it right, if the world is moving toward more openness, empathy and ad revenue for all, it will increasingly be the norm for strangers to have insight into your personal business. Whether or not that is true will depend on whether or not users care and allow their lives, friends and communication to be filtered through Facebook’s business.