Like millions of other Facebook members today, I was asked by the social utility to check my privacy settings. Changes in these settings had been announced last week by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but they started rolling out today. Members will be able–actually, are required–to choose whether to share updates, photos, and other items on Facebook with just friends, friends of friends, or everyone. And they can choose what individual items to share, or not, with specific people. The clear default, from my and other people’s experiences, is to make more of this activity public.
This is the latest of a series of moves intended to encourage members to open up. But while it might work to prompt most people, who never change their privacy settings, to be more public, I think there’s a lot of risk for Facebook. And I don’t mean just from privacy hawks, who raised objections today.
For me, and for many people I interact with on Facebook, the service is the best way to share their lives with specific people, not the world–and we absolutely love it for that purpose. Many of my friends on Facebook avoid Twitter precisely because it’s so public and they don’t want the whole world (or, say, their boss) to know what they’re doing. Me, I love Twitter when I want to say something publicly, but even I’m wary of inflicting my personal life on my 3,500–plus followers–and sometimes, frankly, it’s none of their business because most of them are professional contacts, or at least readers who I think expect only occasional strictly personal observations.
While Facebook is providing pretty granular controls over what gets shared with whom, I’m skeptical most people will bother using them. It’s just too much work. So by introducing more ways to share things more publicly, Facebook risks muddying its essential value proposition.
Some things needed changing. Facebook’s regional groups were becoming so large as to be meaningless, so it’s understandable that it’s doing away with them.
But for all the transparency Facebook is implicitly suggesting its members embrace, the company could have been more transparent with its own intentions. As Danny Sullivan explains, it’s not at all clear to users why they should change their privacy options. In fact, it wasn’t even clear when I went through the process what I had actually changed. At first, Facebook indicated that I had made some things fully public that I had specifically opted not to. Then when I checked the settings, they had retained my previous choices. I think.
Fact is, this isn’t so much about giving people more privacy, as laudable as it is that Facebook is providing more controls. It’s more about Facebook trying to blunt the rising popularity of Twitter and providing a truly searchable real time web index, as Mark Hopkins puts it on SiliconANGLE, that can rival the utility of Google’s index. The more public the information is, the more usable the data is for better targeting of ads, which is what will Facebook must provide to live up to its huge valuation.
I’m just not sure Facebook will be able to escape its heritage as a place where friends share stuff with real friends, not where people share stuff with the wide world. For now, at least, its fitful moves to expand its appeal still don’t quite add up. As Twitter’s wild growth shows, it’s simply a lot easier for people to use a different service for what is really a fundamentally different purpose, rather than trying to shoehorn that activity into Facebook’s existing service.
Zuckerberg surely realizes that the far simpler choice would have been to suck it up and buy Twitter when it could and run it as the separate, public-facing service that it always has been. But I suspect it’s too late for that now. So now the question is whether it’s also too late for Facebook to change its stripes.