Facebook’s folly

The social networking site Facebook.com has come under fire by its users in recent weeks due to the Sept. 5 introduction of News Feed and Mini Feed, two new features added to the site, which users said lacked adequate privacy controls.

To address these and other concerns – such as the recent decision to open Facebook up to the public – creators Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Hughes took part in an online chat with college journalists on Sept. 14, sponsored by College Publisher.

“We definitely should have given more granular (privacy) controls before launching anything,” Zuckerberg said during the chat. “We’re still working on fixing this.”

News Feed appears when a user first signs in and lists each individual change in their friends’ profiles, while Mini Feed appears on each individual user’s profile and shows their recent activity on Facebook, such as recently creating a photo album or joining a group.

Before the privacy controls were created, users could not control which changes could and could not appear on the News Feed and it was not possible for the Mini Feed to be removed from an individual’s profile.

“We added the ability to remove mini-feed from your limited profile, for example,” Zuckerberg said. “We’ll probably add more (changes) as we have time.”

With the creation of the Feeds, existing privacy controls remained intact. Users were reassured of this in a Facebook blog entitled “Facebook Gets a Facelift,” written on the date the changes took place.

They “do not give out any information that wasn’t already visible. Your privacy settings remain the same – the people who couldn’t see your info before still can’t see it now,” wrote Ruchi Sanghvi, the product manager for the Feeds.

Some users expressed their displeasure by creating a group called “Students Against Facebook Feeds,” which had 600,000 members just two days after the Feeds were introduced.

Zuckerburg said Facebook understands why the users became upset over the lack of control and applauds their use of Facebook’s tools to voice that protest.

“It just shows how important having control over their information is to people. We agree with this too,” he said. “I think giving people complete control over what they share and who they share it with is important too, which is why we put such an emphasis on developing privacy tools and making sure Facebook users know about them.”

Hughes said that this was the most widespread dissatisfaction their users have expressed with the site.

“We’ve never heard this much, this loudly,” he said. “We realized pretty quickly that we messed up in not offering essential privacy controls when we released the new features in the beginning. What our users were saying was absolutely reasonable, so we looked to act as quickly as possible to make the situation better.”

The purpose of the Feeds was to make it easier for people to find out what’s going on with their friends, Zuckerberg said.

“People generally use Facebook to get a sense of what’s going on with the people around them and understand their world a little better,” he said. “(Before News Feeds) people had to browse around the site and read through people’s profiles to get a sense of all this, but with these new products we can surface a lot of that information for people. It makes using Facebook a lot more efficient for seeing what’s going on around you.”

With privacy controls in place, the Feeds are on Facebook to stay.

“The feed features are pretty integral to the development of the site, so we won’t be removing them,” he said. “The vast majority of our users aren’t telling us they want them gone. Instead, people told us they wanted more control over them, so that’s what we’ve looked to give them.”

Other changes the site will be undergoing includes opening Facebook up to the public, not just high school and college students and select companies.

“We are planning on opening up Facebook so that you don’t have to be affiliated with a college, high school or place of business to get on,” Hughes said. “But we want to do this in a way that preserves our users’ privacy. Unless you’re in a regional network on the site, you will notice no difference whatsoever to your Facebook. Only the people in your networks will be able to see your profiles, and even those people can be limited with your privacy settings.”

These changes are not a reaction to Myspace.com, another social networking site, Hughes said.

“MySpace and Facebook are really different when you think about it,” he said. “Whereas they seem to be trying to be a media portal where you connect with a lot of people you don’t know, we’re aiming to be a social utility where you rebuild the real-life social networks that you already have.”

Making more money is not a motivating factor for making the site available to the general public either.

“Some people think this upcoming expansion is just to make money, but that’s not really the point,” Zuckerburg said.

“Facebook is a tool that more than just college students can use, so we want to let them use it. If all we wanted was to make money, we’d put up more banner ads, but as you can see we’re not doing that.”