Many of my friends have threatened to leave Facebook because of their concerns over privacy, but for the first time, this week one of them actually made good on the threat.
In his “Dear John” letter, my friend Yohann summarized the issue:
I don’t feel that I am in control of the information I share on Facebook, and of the information my friends share… FB has total control of (some of) my information, and I don’t like that.
It’s not that Yohann didn’t like Facebook–he did. He liked being able to see his friend’s latest photos and keep up with status updates. The problem was that Yohann (who is, by the way a very smart, tech savvy guy) felt unable to use the Facebook user interface to effectively maintain control of his information.
The root of this problem could be one of two things. It could be that Facebook has adopted the “evil interface” strategy (discussed by Rich previously on the human factors blog), where an interface is not designed to help a user accomplish their goals easily (a key tenet of human factors), but is instead designed to encourage (or trick) a user to behave the way the interface designer wants the user to behave (even if it’s not what the user really wants). Clearly, this strategy is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which from Facebook’s perspective is that users will stop using Facebook altogether if they feel tricked or not in control.
A more optimistic perspective is that the problem of privacy on Facebook is a human factors one: the privacy settings on Facebook need to be redesigned because they are currently not easy to use. Here are a few human factors issues I’ve noticed.
Lack of Feedback
In general, there is very little feedback provided to users about the privacy level of different pieces of information on their Facebook profile. For example, by default, Facebook now considers your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, friend list, and Pages to all be public information. However, no feedback is given to users as they enter or change this information to indicate that this is considered public information.
While Facebook did introduce a preview function which shows a preview of what information a Facebook friend would see should they visit your profile (which is a great idea!), the preview function does not provide feedback to a user about what information they are sharing publicly or with apps. For example, you can’t type “Yelp” into the preview window to see what information Facebook would share with Yelp through Facebook connect.
No Training (Instructions)
Finally, Facebook does not provide any training and only minimal instructions for users on how to manage privacy settings.
Fortunately, there are some relatively simple human factors solutions that could help users manage their privacy without writing their own Dear John letter to Facebook.
In terms of interface changes to increase feedback to users, Facebook could for example, notify users when they are entering information that Facebook considers public by placing an icon beside the text box. That way, users would be given immediate feedback about which information would be shared publicly.
Perhaps if Facebook decides to take a human factors approach to privacy in the future, Yohann will re-friend Facebook.
Kelly Caine PhD is a research fellow in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. Her primary research interests include privacy, health technology, human factors, hci, aging, and designing for special populations.
(post image from Flickr user hyku)