05 May 2010

Do I Need to Revisit Facebook Privacy Settings *Again* ?

The Washington Post

In Sunday's paper, I attempted to clarify advice I gave in the prior Sunday's paper. Now I'm afraid I might have to clarify it further, and for the same reasons as the first time around: Facebook's changing, confusing and sometimes outright cryptic privacy settings.

To recap, two Sundays ago I used my Help File Q&A to suggest ways to control who can see what things you recommended by clicking a Facebook "Like" button on other sites, this one included.

(Condensed disclaimers: Post Co. chairman/CEO Donald E. Graham on Facebook's board of directors, former Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly a friend from college, many Posties market selves on Facebook.)

But when the Palo Alto, Calif., social network followed up its new sharing features by redoing its privacy-settings interface, I had to return to the topic a week later. This second Help File item included the following text:

    Now, if you want to ensure that only friends can see which items you've recommended with a click of a Facebook "Like" button at other sites (The Post's included), you're supposed to visit a "Friends, Tags and Connections" page in your privacy settings.

    On that page, set "Activities," "Interests" and "Things I Like" to "Only Friends" to avoid broadcasting those details to strangers at Facebook or any other site.

But one reader wrote in to say that he was still seeing the old privacy interface, without that "Friends, Tags and Connections" page. Another reported that when she used Facebook's helpful "preview-my-profile" option to see how her profile would appear to strangers, the public pages she'd Liked on Facebook were still visible, while things recommended through Like buttons elsewhere were not.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kurt Opsahl noted other issues in an e-mail. Even if you keep your profile's "Connections" links to "Community Pages" about your home town/college/employer/etc. private, you can still show up by name on those pages. (Facebook once knew how to handle that issue: If you viewed a public page without logging into the site, you would only see the first names of most of its fans.) And a Facebook note says that if you use another site's "Like" button to endorse "a real world entity, such as a book, movie or athlete," that, too, becomes part of your profile's public information.

All this shows, in the most charitable reading, an appalling inattention to usability. Pay attention to this part, Facebook management: Interfaces should be clear, consistent and predictable. You can't use the same term, "Like," for functions with different levels of exposure and control. You can't suggest an option does one thing -- limit something's visibility to "Only Friends" -- when it does something else. You can't opt everybody into new sharing options and then take a week or so to deploy a new privacy interface.

If Facebook's executives are not clear about these principles, there are many excellent resources available. I would suggest they start by Liking computer scientist Donald Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things," a wonderful treatise that will ensure they'll never look at doorknobs in the same way again.

Meanwhile: Although I hate contemplating a correction on a 152-word piece meant to clarify a 115-word item (the rough journalistic equivalent of accidentally plunking the pitcher after walking the number-eight hitter), it's ultimately up to you all. Does the text quoted above answer the original query -- controlling the visibility of Likes at non-Facebook sites -- correctly or not? I'll await your comments while I mope in the dugout.

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