The Facebook stepped into trouble this week. It introduced two features, News Feed and Mini-Feed, that allowed users to track their friends’ activities. Join a group, post a photo or comment, break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or change your profile and Facebook would notify all of your friends. This is too much transparency even for Facebook users, who immediately protested the features. Within a few days a Facebook group, Students Against Facebook News Feeds, had over 600,000 members, press coverage, and the attention of Facebook’s creators. A Google News search of “facebook privacy protest” a few moments ago produced about 246 news outlet hits. See Facebook Feature Draws Privacy Concerns (NY Times), Facebook Changes Spark Protest (Times of London), Social website hit with privacy protest (Boston.com) for representative coverage.
A short time ago Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a mea culpa of sorts on the Facebook homepage. It begins “we really messed this one up” and apologizes to users–not for News Feed and Mini-Feed themselves, but for the lack of control over their application. After “coding nonstop for two days” (I could probably retire on what they spent on Red Bull) Facebook rolled out new privacy controls, allowing users to determine which bits of personal news they wish to share with friends. So, for instance, a user could elect to notify friends of changes in relationship status and new wall posts, while withholding notice of profile changes and comments on photos. Zuckerberg hopes, no doubt, to defuse the storm and deflate a user boycott next Tuesday.
I’ll confess that I missed this story until a former privacy-law student grabbed me in Starbucks yesterday evening to tell me about it. He expressed amazement both at Facebook for springing this feature on its community, and at the passion of the protest. In my class last spring many students embraced Scott McNealy’s you-have-no-privacy-so-get-over-it posture. He was surprised and, I think, pleased that so many Facebook users did not roll over on this one. Whether they were protesting a stalker-esque loss of their privacy, or dreading a deluge of trivial “news” about their friends, I don’t know.