Facebook: personalization vs. privacy

Mark Zuckerberg says he wants to make the web better by encouraging more sharing of information, but the head of Facebook has some work to do if he's going to get everyone to buy in.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives the keynote speech at the company's f8 developer conference on April 21, 2010. ((Greg Gunn, special to CBC))
Mark Zuckerberg says he wants to make the web better by encouraging more "instant social and personal" experiences, but the head of Facebook has some work to do if he's going to get everyone to buy in. 

I was in the third row of the company's f8 Developers Conference in San Francisco on April 21 when the Facebook CEO launched new tools to help content developers incorporate information from Facebook profiles into their websites and applications. 

As Zuckerberg announced policy changes, APIs, plug-ins and protocols, the geek in me was frothing at the mouth, dreaming of all the cool tools this could produce. 

Then it hit me. How is my mom going to react?

At the beginning of the conference, Zuckerberg said that there would be a few major privacy policy updates; the one that got the most positive reaction from developers dealt with lifting the restriction that forced them to delete users' data after 24 hours.

Canada's privacy czar, Jennifer Stoddard, didn't share the developers' feelings — she gave this announcement a big thumbs-down.  "The information will be stored indefinitely, and it opens the possibility that a lot of people can be blackmailed from all corners of the world," she said. 

Zuckerberg later told reporters that the reasoning behind the move was primarily technical, and developers would not have access to any data not available before.  So the users still have final control over their privacy settings? Could you explain that to another Jennifer from Canada, Mr. Zuckerberg — my mom?

She was surprised to learn Facebook had decided to share her information. "Now I have to rethink if Facebook is really for me, if I have to worry about my privacy every time I click." 

Suspicious of Facebook's motive, which my mom gathers is purely financial, she opted to turn off the instant personalization option.  She learned from a morning TV show that the changes would allow Facebook to not only share her data with other websites, but that her Facebook settings were defaulted to allow that.

"I went back to my privacy settings and, after some trial and error, found the instant personalizing setting that said that Facebook allows websites to use my data in order to assist me with their sites. Of course, I disallowed it," she said.

Building confidence

Unlike my mom, Zuckerberg and I grew up with the internet.  Because of this, our generation is more willing to share information. 

This screenshot shows CNN's website with Facebook's "Like" button. ((Greg Gunn, special to CBC))
Where we see tools that cut through the noise of the web and make our online experience more relevant, though, others perceive an increased risk to personal privacy and the potential for identity theft.

But sharing information can have some big benefits as well.

"When you are on the web anywhere, you can see which of your Facebook connections have also been there," Scott J. Kleper, co-founder of social marketing company ContextOptional, said in support of Facebook's changes. "And that may give you some additional information. It may give you additional motivation to do something, to make it safer to read an article or buy a product that you may otherwise pass by."

With 400 million users, Facebook needs to start calming the fears of users like Jennifer Gunn. Words like "indefinitely" when referring to storing information aren't soothing to people like my mom, who "just signed up to make sure [I] was alive" when I decided to pack up and move to Nigeria two years ago.

At the conference I sought advice from people who stand to benefit the most from these changes: the Facebook developers.  How would they suggest I explain the changes to my mom?

"I guess I would say that online there is a way of recognizing who you are," Victoria Ransom, CEO of social promotion and engagement firm Wildfire Interactive, said. "Facebook is now tapping into that … so that when you come to this web page, they're going to give you a much better experience."

Maintaining privacy

And what about the sites my mom doesn't want people to know she visits? Facebook's "like" buttons propagating across the web, but my mom was unsure of the implications of these links. 

Facebook's f8 conference attracted developers interested in building applications around Facebook's network. ((Greg Gunn, special to CBC))
"Her friends in the town, city, wherever she lives … they [are] going to see that 'oh, she likes this article' … in a way that may be good," Shirley X. Lin, founder of online social game publisher YoXi 123, explained. "But if I happen to be reading something else, say a Penthouse article, I don't want people to know that I'm reading Penthouse. So your option is, as a user, whether you want to click this because that puts you on the map."

My mom is not reading Penthouse, but if she did, Lin wants her to know that even if she left her privacy settings to default, she would still have control over what was shared with the rest of her network. 

Even if my mom didn't find comfort in this, I did.

Facebook privacy settings

In his April 21 keynote, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook is, "building towards a web where the default is social." This is reflected in the default settings found within each user's individual Facebook page.

If you want to change those settings, sign into your account and click on "Account" and then "Privacy Settings." There is a new section called "Applications and Websites" that displays all the personal information you are agreeing to let third-party sites access through the new tools released at the developers conference. Additionally, there is a checkbox that indicates whether or not you want to take part in the "Instant Personalization" features.

Developers might also be able to gain information on you from your Facebook friends. It is advisable to review your Public Information settings to make sure that you are comfortable with them as well.

But if my mom goes to and they know that she "likes" Angel Food cake, doesn't that mean that they also have access to other, more personal, information in her profile?

According to Noah Horton, co-founder of Involver, a social application developer and online marketing firm, my mom didn't have anything to worry about. Horton explained that the way the system is designed, whenever a third party wants access to your profile information a security dialogue box comes up prompting the user to allow it.

"It never just happens without your knowledge."

This built-in buffer keeps control in the hands of my mom, as Zuckerberg has stated, but she says she still will probably not click and share information. "If I want a website to know more about me, I'll take the time to type in my information. I don't need the warm and fuzzies of knowing it recognized me upon entry," she says.

Ransom encouraged me to use an analogy to really bring this issue home: "So let's say you're going to a recipe website and … they know that you love Italian cooking, because they know that from your Facebook profile. And by the way, your son's been on that site recently and you're thrilled to know that. This is great, because now they can show you exactly those kinds of recipes that you like, and that other people and your friend network like."

This is why my mom should be excited.  This is why we should all be excited.  I'm not going to cook her an Italian dinner, but instead of going online to make sure her children are okay, my mom can go online and learn new things about us: what we stand for, what we read, what we eat. 

"Will it freak out some moms? Yeah, it probably will," Ransom said. "I think there's probably going to be quite a lot of education that's going to be needed and quite a lot of explaining."

Of course, our lives will still be discussed around the dinner table on Sunday nights. But through social networks, we will have a deeper understanding of each other.

The author is a freelance writer and MBA candidate at the Richard Ivey School of Business.