So facebook did an update last night, changing it from something that had all the data to enable stalkers, but which made it mildly irritating to do it from their UI, to making it radically easy to find out all sorts of personal information about someone. Lets be utterly, 100% clear- you can’t do anything now that you couldn’t do 48 hours ago. They just made something that had been mildly hidden very, very obvious. In 43 hours, 345,000 people have joined the largest protest group- ‘Students Against Facebook News Feed’. In comparison, the self-titled ‘largest facebook group ever’ has 840,000 members. So that group is huge, growing at an insane rate (over 20K/hour for most of today, has grown by 4,000 while I’ve written this post) and that is only one of many. Clearly putting it in people’s face every time they log in exactly how little privacy they have may have been a mistake for facebook.
There is a pretty straightforward lesson here for anyone building online community- the things you and your power users think are obvious (‘it is already possible to stalk someone, duh!’) may not be obvious to the vast majority of your community members. Surface those issues that are obvious to the core without thinking about the details of how you surface it outside the core and it may well blow up in your face, even if nothing substantive has changed.
NB: there may be another long-term lesson here: people adjust and things blow over sometimes. It will be really interesting to see whether or not that happens in this case, and why. If I had to place a bet, I’d guess that facebook will make some very minor changes (one or two categories might become opt-in instead of opt-out) and the essentially exhibitionist facebook crowd will get used to it. If they do get used to it, that has huge implications for the future of privacy in our society- the majority of an entire generation will have spent very formative years living very, very, very publicly, and that will inevitably influence what they think of privacy as a value in the future.