If Facebook were smart…

If Facebook were smart and open and meant what it said about the benefits of publicness and transparency that it now expects of the rest of us, then:

* Today’s company all-hands meeting about privacy would be public.

* It would find the Apple-elegant way to express its privacy policy rather than its current Talmudic tangle, something like: “Everything you put into Facebook is shared with your friends but in each case you may limit who sees it or choose to share it with the public. That is always your choice.”

* It would find the Apple-elegant way for us to execute that choice: let me make it every time I do something.

* It would find easy ways to show us how the world sees us through Facebook (and help us change that).

* It would not change its privacy settings and policies constantly. Set it. Explain it. Stick with it.

* It would not attempt to hoover up and share my implicit activity on the web. It should share only that which I explicitly choose to share. Execs should recognize that that’s what set users off; that was the line too far, the straw too many.

* It would recognize how much their defaults matter because, even if their privacy policies and functionality were elegant, they know most of us wouldn’t bother — and many of their users are young and not necessarily savvy about how their information can be used in the future. They would see their defaults as a responsibility.

* It would define evil. I said that on the latest This Week in Google: Google, by enabling its employees to ask whether it is evil, defines evil every day and that’s only for the good of its business: If it oversteps a line, if it does evil, it will lose trust and lose business. Facebook must make the similar calculation. It should define that line openly and let us and their employees challenge it constantly.

* It would use today’s meeting as an opportunity for soul-searching, enabling employees and unhappy (would-be) former users to criticize and thus help Facebook find its way.

* It would open-source and federate and put in users’ control any data and functionality about their identity online. That is, it should use open-source standards. It should allow me to extract and host my own identity and data. It should enable other companies to build atop this, with my consent.

* Facebook should decide whether it is in the relationship or the identity business and should learn that trying to be in both put it in conflict with itself and us. It was and likely needs to stay in the relationship business and that is precisely why it can’t become the host and publisher of our public identities.

* As I suggested here, it should study 16th century history about the origins of the public and private and understand that it is playing with bigger, more powerful and profound forces than even it knows. I just wrote in my next book that we are undergoing a similar shift in how society organizes itself with similar tools. Mark Zuckerberg says that he is enabling big change in society. I say examine that belief.

Facebook is smart. That’s why I remain surprised that it is blundering so. When Peter Rojas killed his Facebook identity (as Leo Laporte did last night on TWiG), he said in a Twitter conversation we had that Facebook may be blinded to its problems by its meteoric growth; it can’t see people leaving for all the people joining. I think he has a point. Any and every company would be wise to hear from unhappy and former customers, no matter how many new customers they have.

And they should do it in public.

  • http://twitter.com/balqan Adam Sofineti

    I’m wondering if the reason behind Facebook constant change of their privacy policy, is a necessary evil in order to have the freedom to add new features.

    Of course, we can argue that if a new feature would compromise our privacy, it’s better not to introduce it.

    Can we have an evolution in technology, be that Facebook, or Google, or any other major player, while expecting to have the same kind of privacy as we had a decade ago?

    Should the privacy question concern only the tech companies, or should we as society of technology consumers start thinking about reinventing ourself and adapting to new realities?

  • http://www.scottkellum.net/ Scott Kellum

    I agreed to the 2005 Privacy Policy when I signed up for Facebook. How is it legal for them to change it on me?

    I had plenty of private photos and notes that I expected to be private and every year have to clean up my profile because Facebook keeps BREAKING MY PRIVACY CONTRACT with them.

  • http://www.manifesto.org Charles

    I think one of the core issues in this fiasco is the responsibility of defaults. Facebook (and every other online business) knows the distinction between opt-in and opt-out, and the curves associated with each approach. This was a calculated move to immediately migrate the entire user base into new services. And, as the smug Q&A with Elliot Schrage so clearly implies, even with attrition and after-the-fact opt-outs, Facebook will likely be more valuable because of the approach. Facebook is trying to monetize the mass market despite the protestation of the early adopters, and, sadly, I’m sure they have enough data to support the decision.

  • http://francescociriaci.wordpress.com Francesco Ciriaci

    Great article, thanks!

    I especially like this: “It would open-source and federate and put in users’ control any data and functionality about their identity online.”

    I strongly believe that identity online is key in the future of internet. Facebook as greatly accelerated the process in the last year (from connect to the last Open Graph and widgets, but they are not playing well enough with the users and the rest of the world! I’m afraid that complaints coming from users will be usless if FB manages to give users more “services” and “friendlyness”. We have to built alternatives and built standards.

    One interesting attempt is Diaspora (http://www.joindiaspora.com/) and I hope many more will pop up soon!

  • Tim

    The Facebook backlash is only just beginning. It started slowly at first, but will accelerate much in the same way the service grew in its early days. And it’s not just privacy. The novelty of living one’s life in public, in digital form, has worn off. I’m rooting for Diaspora* too.

  • Gumboz1953

    After hearing Leo and others talking about FB, I deactivated my account. I said I was gone for good, not “coming back.” I rarely checked it anyway.

    So I was looking at the story about Yeardley Love, the lacrosse player allegedly killed by her ex-boyfriend, and the article linked to another web page. I clicked on the link, and a Facebook memorial page opened. It surprised me that I didn’t have to log in.

    But what really surprised me was when I clicked on “home” at the top of the memorial page and my page opened. I didn’t log in, anytime during this process.

    So I deactivated my account AGAIN and left the comment: I WANT MY INFORMATION GONE. NOW. Fat chance.

  • http://www.pikk.com Kevin

    There is a disconnect between the executive team demographic and the company’s core user demographic. Facebook is run by young single men, mostly. Their biggest demo is married people with kids. Married women have no intent of publicly posting pictures of their kids, but the exec team just doesn’t understand that. I think the board needs to crack some skulls and tell Facebook to fix this, pronto, but I sense that the board is complicit or spineless. They really have to make everything opt-in or simplify the opt-out process. They’re pissing off a lot of people.

  • http://spiritsentient.com Jason Fonceca

    Brilliant, brilliant suggestions Jeff! Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m sure it will get many people thinking along good lines.

    The only point I’d add a clarification to, is the one about not changing. In my experience, change is good, fantastic, and a creative part of life — constant change with periods of rest though… that seems like something not to intend, which is I believe, what you’re getting at :)

    Rock on,

  • BillW


    You want to DELETE, not DEACTIVATE your account. Google for instructions — unsurpisinlgy, Facebook doesn’t make it easy to find them.

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  • Vernon Vincent

    It’s an interesting facet of those in the technology business (especially those of us who have been involved with computers for the past 30 years or so) that we have a hard time understanding why companies and people deliberately choose to do things that seem so wrong. We think it’s because they don’t understand or have some deficiency of comprehension – and if we can only just explain it to them, then things will be corrected.

    It ain’t gonna happen.

    Facebook did not become this successful by being ignorant of the outcome of its decisions. Now, they may have underestimated some reactions, but I firmly believe that they are fully aware of the ramifications of their business decisions. I believe they deliberately structured their initial privacy statements to get people to join, with the intent of making repeated incremental changes to the effect of reaching the current state of things. They have staked their entire revenue stream on advertising and market data, and it’s a fundamental truism that it’s harder for someone to change their habits once they have ‘bought-in’ to something. It’s why a new product has to be 10 times better than a current product in order for someone to change.

    Someone once told me that people, when given all of the facts, truly know the *right* decision to make. If they choose otherwise, it’s because they *want* to choose otherwise. Facebook knows how people feel – all they have to do is look at the Facebook pages that criticize the company.

    Facebook knows what it’s doing, and I think has known since Day One. Their actions are not that of a company stumbling to get things right, but that of a company making calculated changed with a specific end-goal in mind.

    • http://aqualung.typepad.com/aqualung/ Ric

      It’s the classic bait-and-switch fraud: promise one thing and get people hooked, then deliver something different. This is particularly heinous, because it has taken advantage (generally) of those who were most “afraid” of the internet by promising that FB was differnet to “The Internet” by being private and secure … then selling them and their data to advertisers

  • Sick of Social Networking

    Jeff, you make great points as always and it would be nice if these companies adopted your way of thinking but it’s too late for me. The privacy issues with social networking sites led me to examine what they are good for. The answer I came up with is “Nothing”.

    Facebook and MySpace are a waste-of-time and I can’t understand why anyone still bothers with them who isn’t in high-school. Sure, they were cute and a fun way to reconnect with old friends et cetera but once that intital excitement dies off and you realize that you don’t care what others are doing and don’t care to let others know what you’re doing all the time, what are they good for?

    Frankly, if you have a life – if you have something to do and are busy doing it – these sites are unnecessary. Who cares what Facebook’s policy is or whether they are open or not. I’ve already said goodbye because I have a *real* life and little need for a *virtual* one.

    I spend a lot of time on the computer and on the web for work and once that day is done, it’s time to get outdoors and leave the gadgets and internet behind. Maybe there’s some value in social networking to companies but there probably isn’t. I mean if companies are desperately trying to reach and connect with customers via social networking sites, they’re really just encouraging their own employees to waste time connecting with other entities via the web – especially since most people use the web at work, right?

    I’m with Tim. The novelty has worn off and this doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

    btw – Kevin, So many people post pics of their kids as their avatar that sometimes it’s impossible to tell who they are… and its despicable.

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  • http://notlike-ly.blogspot.com/ CloudMarc

    Disagree – If FB were smart they would embrace their position as a host of private social networking. They have painted themselves into a privacy corner. Any attempts to push people toward being more public would only alienate their current user base (further).

    Diaspora to FB seems like Google to Yahoo a few years ago – before Google, Yahoo was losing focus on search, which created a golden opportunity for Google. FB is losing focus on private social networking, creating opportunities for those like Diaspora.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Diaspora to FB seems like Google to Yahoo a few years ago – before Google, Yahoo was losing focus on search, which created a golden opportunity for Google.

      That’s not how things happened. Yahoo didn’t focus on search until after Google became prominent. In fact, Yahoo actually helped Google become prominent because Yahoo didn’t think that search was important. Google’s rise is what convinced Yahoo that search was something important and then Yahoo got serious about it.

      Google’s opening happened in part because Altavista, or rather, its series of corporate owners, lost focus on search. (Altavista is now owned by Yahoo, but this happened under previous owners.)

  • http://reisalevine.com/blog/ reisa

    I’d be careful about praising the ‘apple-elegant’ model. Yes, apple is great at ‘elegant’ messaging/marketing, BUT, not so great with openness or sharing.

  • http://opalkatze.wordpress.com/ vera

    You’re not really thinking mz will behave this way, are you?

  • http://alexandraschmidt.com/ alex

    aren’t we surrendering personal information every time we register for anything? aren’t we giving Google oodles of info when we use their products? the focus on FB is narrow. consciousness needs to be raised, and questions asked, on a much broader scale about how we exist online. FB is just one piece of the puzzle.

  • http://techyell.com Mark Nielsen

    The topic of “Facebook should decide whether it is in the relationship or the identity business” is a very good topic.

    It will be very interesting to see how the play damage control tonight and in the near future. Trust is one thing that is very very tough to rebuild. It won’t happen but I think the best move for trust being rebuilt is for Mark Zuckerberg to step down from CEO. He may be a very smart guy but his public character does not help Facebook right now when it comes to trust.

  • David

    I have a thought on how Facebook should implement its changes. In the corporate world, companies often have one week during the year when they make big changes to things like their health care policies, or retirement plans, etc. Facebook should do something similar with its privacy changes.

    I wouldn’t mind them making big changes if they weren’t such a surprise. If I knew that Facebook Change Week was the first week of April, for example, I could relax the rest of the year knowing I only have to pay attention that one week.

    Of course, users should still be able to change their settings year-round at will. I’m just suggesting a one-sided moratorium on privacy changes.

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  • JohnO

    Well said. I expect that if FB doesn’t get it together, enough tools will evolve that we can curate our own online identities (through, say, a blog, a photo stream, Twitter, etc.). But it would be easier if we didn’t have to move.

  • http://www.littlejolit.com jo

    In the latest round of changes linking you interests – they made it so difficult to opt out. There was no option to opt out overall – you had to individually deselect items. Very frustrating. I ended up deleting ALL my interests and removing a good portion of the appeal of Facebook which was to share these things.

    In addition, their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities which is deeply buried in the Privacy Link at the bottom then you go to another buried link to the Statement at the bottom of that page…) (nerd joke: reminds me of the location of the Vogon construction plans) Reads:

    Sharing Your Content and Information
    You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition: For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: ****you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.****

    The stars are my addition to highlight the main point. From what I can tell of this agreement – that means that as long as you have the image posted – Facebook can use it to sub-license and make money off of it. So my artwork that I posted, or your photography can be sold without our permission and without any payment to us. Wow. Seduce us into posting and sharing everything, then make it possible to steal it all to sell and give us nothing. Oh, and hide the terms that say this is what is being done.

    Facebook has become evil. I took everything off and I am contemplating deleting my account. I am so fed up of this.

  • Lynn

    The tech community needs to take Zuck (my new favorite four letter word) and Facebook down. Please read the elegant words by Eben Moglen on Freedom In the Cloud,

    “The human race has susceptibility to harm but Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record: he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age.”


  • http://robgrantsblog.blogspot.com/ Rob Grant

    I’m a firm believer in social networking, I love being honest with everyone and anyone. However, I still would like to be in some control of what is shared to the public. I may make a mistake one day that could land me in a tight spot, for example if I post something that I do with my children that I was not aware of as being illegal, like tattoo them under the age of 18 in New York State. How else am I to know which twin is which?

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  • http://ppalme.wordpress.com Peter Palme

    I wonder how many facebook users account you could truly call active. Even if you deactivate your account it seems that your data is still there. Counting number of profiles or new profiles created is not enough to accurate enough. Facebook should be careful to misread their success and avoiding to become ignorant to the points raised in your blog post.

  • http://jonathonsciola.com Jonathon

    Jeff, If Facbook should stay in the relationship biz and not “can’t become the host and publisher of our public identities” then what is an example of a current “host and publisher of our public identities” that exists now or could exist in the future?

  • http://jonathonsciola.com Jonathon

    Jeff, If Facbook should stay in the relationship biz and not “become the host and publisher of our public identities” then who is? Is any one doing that now?

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  • http://twitter.com/MaxLathuiliere Maxime Lathuiliere (Fr)

    “* It would find easy ways to show us how the world sees us through Facebook (and help us change that).”

    Actually there is already a way to check how the other people see our profile: Privacy Settings>Profile Information>Preview My Profile…
    (Notice that you can’t hide pages you’re fan of…)

    Anyway, Facebook doesn’t respect the Jarvis’ First Law: “Give the people control, they will use it.”
    At the opposite, open source based projects like Diaspora are just about giving the control. Let’s bet that without huge changes in Zuckerberg’s policy, we will soon see massive shifts from facebook to Diaspora-like…

    Go Diaspora ! http://joindiaspora.com/project.html

  • http://kadekmedien.com/ kadekmedien

    What if Facebook isn’t that smart? What if Facebook is even smarter? What if it never ever was in the relationship business instead of being in the publishing business? What if there was a big misunderstanding from the very begin?

    I see it as two sides of one medal: they offer functionality in interchange of information. Both sides – users as well as the platform – agree with that. On the flipside, the two involved into this interchange go ahead on seemingly separate ways: users use the given functionality for social networking; Facebook offers information to target advertising businesses in interchange of money. On the edge of the medal they all meet again in highly personalized ads.

    So what? If anyone doesn’t want some private information to be seen in public – don’t publish it. Isn’t it the same I heard one of the Google-heads saying?

  • http://thecodemonk.com Aaron Smith

    Why not find another “social networking” platform to support? Orkut is controlled by Google, isn’t it? I’ve had a profile there for a very long time but never used it until today. I looked at the privacy settings that I have never changed and it seems that everything is set the way I would want it in the first place, mostly private with a little bit of public sharing.

  • Andy Freeman

    Dave Winer, who has invented several internet standards, has an interesting take on Facebook.


  • http://barrydewar.wordpress.com Barry Dewar

    Facebook will eat itself. Something that is moving and changing so much is eventually going to find itself so far away from the initial concept that the customers will simply drift off. As open-source alternatives begin to gather funding, Facebook should be very scared.

    There is so much that Facebook doesn’t do for it’s users. It’s a very closed in system and the very nature of it’s open-source competitors will mean that they will hit the niches much quicker and FB will be sidelined.

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  • Daniel

    I was wondering if people could give me a link to the privacy policy of facebook where there are 45,000 words. I cannot seem to find it. The privacy policy I found is only about 6,000 words long. Further, if it is a condensed version of the 45,000 word count, I think this is a very good boil down.

    I hope someone does reply,


    like to privacy policy: http://www.facebook.com/policy.php

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  • http://www.it-career-coach.net/ Kingsley Tagbo

    If Facebook were smart…It would have half a billion users. Its CEO would be the youngest self-made billionaire. Oh, they are smart! You must be talking about something else. If Facebook were open… It would become a democracy, instead of a dictatorship. Facebook and social media walk a lot of fine lines. Facebook might be best if it delves into several areas of business, that’s their decision. Wal-mart offers a huge variety of products and decided to become “Made in China” reduce every penny of cost. I think it’s obvious that Facebook is interested in taking advantage of user data, and that data is only now being realized as money growing on trees.

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  • sharl

    If Facebook were smart…It would have half a billion users. Its CEO would be the youngest self-made billionaire. Oh, they are smart! You must be talking about something else. If Facebook were open… It would become a democracy, instead of a dictatorship. Facebook and social media walk a lot of fine lines. Facebook might be best if it delves into several areas of business, that’s their decision. Wal-mart offers a huge variety of products and decided to become “Made in China” reduce every penny of cost. I think it’s obvious that Facebook is interested in taking advantage of user data, and that data is only now being realized as money growing on trees

  • sharl

    I like the life with facebook . It joie betwen me and the othier . I will fond hear . please comeing to me .

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