3 things to learn from Facebook’s privacy problems

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Facebook users are a fickle bunch, often known to complain about even the smallest changes to the site.

But when Facebook introduced new personalization features this April many users went into full-out revolt.

The latest uproar around the site’s privacy has been slowly building for months culminating in the site’s “Instant Personalization” feature that allowed third-party sites to customize content based on your profile information. An innovative idea that had just one problem: the company forgot to tell users.

The Instant Personalization combined with some ill-timed press coverage and a tell-all book about the company created the perfect storm for user outrage that led some users to swear off the addictive service and spurred the government to consider legislating the company.

Despite its missteps, Facebook is slowly emerging better than ever from one of the most high-profile and wide-reaching discussions around online privacy the web has ever seen, providing publishers with three lessons for dealing with a similar blunder:

Acknowledge users quickly

Facebook’s privacy dust-up caused the initial wave of anger, but what allowed the controversy to grow was the company’s ambivalence to the initial outcry. The first serious complaints began in late April after its f8 Conference and it took until May 26th for the company to react.

In that month of silence, trend pieces on how to delete a Facebook account began appearing on blogs and in newspapers and Google Trends shows there was a sharp increase in searches for “Facebook Privacy” as users clamored to know more. 

When the company finally announced the new privacy changes (E), however, the number of searches fell and the backlash was tamed.

Early adopters are not the Web

Leading the charge among the outraged were the “Internet Famous”: those with a strong following online, but not much reach with the rest of the population. If you were judging only by popular bloggers, such as entrepreneur Jason Calicanis, podcaster Leo Laporte and Engadget founder Peter Rojas (all of whom publically deleted their account), it would seem as if the whole world was jumping off the Facebook bandwagon. Many users even pledged to quit en masse on May 31st in protest.

However, the event flopped and Facebook’s user numbers remained unchanged. It turned out that users just wanted control of their data and communication from the company. Even with all of Facebook’s errors, users weren’t ready to abandon the service.

Keep it simple

At SXSW, privacy and social media research Danah Boyd shed some light on the complicated privacy settings of Facebook and other social networks:

“I started asking non-techy users about their privacy settings on Facebook. I ask them what they think their settings are and then ask them to look at their settings with me. I have yet to find someone whose belief matched up with their reality.”

While Facebook gave users control, many didn’t even know it as the site’s privacy settings page were notoriously complicated. The company has since rolled out a more simplified privacy page though it’s too soon to tell the effect the new setting will have on privacy awareness.

Facebook may have stumbled, but the lessons for online publishers are clear: when privacy is an issue, users value speedy and timely communication. Luckily that's one thing the media business has been getting right for years.

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