Privacy, Noise Control, and Facebook’s Inability to Understand Either
I’m a fairly “public” person. I post a lot of things in the public view on teh Interwebs and harbor little expectation of privacy when I do so. I’m also a bit selective as to what I share as a way to help reduce the noise I create for others, not necessarily because of any desire for privacy. I assume that anyone who wants the “firehose” will follow my shares on Google Reader and my posts on Twitter, thus capturing almost all of my public social activity. I do, however, have a problem with forced sharing.
This is the direction Facebook is going in, to force you to “share” anything you do on other sites as a condition of using them as an identity provider. Look at what they’ve been doing with Yahoo News and Spotify and you’ll see what I mean. I’m not okay with this and you shouldn’t be either. I don’t particularly care that a lot of it may be public (it doesn’t matter to me much though it may matter to you immensely); I care that it creates even more noise in a redesigned interface that’s already too noisy and gives you inadequate and confusing controls for controlling that noise. Go look at the ticker. Facebook made an assumption with the redesign that we care about everything our “friends” do. The sad truth is that we don’t.
See, this is the problem. Facebook hears “I can’t tell what the people I care about are doing”, and they assume this means that the people you know simply aren’t able to easily share even more banal day-to-day goings with you. Given this assumption, it makes sense that Facebook would decide to post even more stuff about your friends. It’s the right answer to the wrong problem. The problem is that there is so much content that we can’t find the relevant stuff without drinking from the firehose. We also can’t pick out the stuff we want to see from particular people. We classify people instead of the content they create. I often hold back from sharing more not because I don’t think anyone will be interested in it, but because I don’t want to contribute to the problem.
Facebook took the same approach with comment threads. It used to be that participation in a comment thread, including liking the original post, was enough to subscribe you to the comment stream. This wasn’t the best approach, coupling participation with following the responses, but at least you could opt out if the discussion was no longer relevant. Some people didn’t know you could opt out and would complain about excessive notification. How did Zuckerberg and Company respond to this? Not by decoupling the subscription process from participation, but assuming that your lack of continued participation means you no longer wish to follow the conversation. Wha?
The final nail in the coffin is this new “subscribe” feature they have created, a problem with both noise and privacy. With the latest changes, you end up being “subscribed” to every person you are “friends” with. (I put these terms in quotes because of their poorly-descriptive nature.) The problem, again, is that instead of you defining the nature of the relationship, Facebook wants to do it for you. As an example, the ticker now shows every single item your “friends” comment on, but this makes no distinction between the comments. I don’t care what you posted on your friends comment thread if 1) we are not mutual friends, 2) I can’t see the discussion, and/or 3) I can’t participate in it. It may make sense to see when the comment belongs to a mutual friend’s post or on a public post, but why should you be the sole determinant as to what posts of your friends’ you see? Why shouldn’t the poster be able to control the broadcast of this information, and why is your control over it an “all or nothing” proposition?
This is Facebook’s core problem: they are totally tone-deaf when it comes to complaints from their users. We ask for better privacy controls, they give us “all-or-nothing” options that force us to either share or not share with the wrong people. We complain that we can’t tell what’s going on, they give us more noise. Some people like Robert Scoble think Facebook knows what they’re doing, but I take the Mike Elgan approach: they’re out-of-touch and well on their way to being the next Yahoo.