Facebook and Privacy: A Guest Post by Kelly Caine

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.

Changes to Privacy Policy Violate Users’ Expectations

Facebook’s privacy policies have changed drastically over the years (The EFF provides a good description of the changes and Matt McKeon has made a very nice visualization of the changes).

Users, especially expert users, had likely already developed expectations about what profile information would be shared with whom. Each time Facebook changed the privacy policy (historically, always in the direction of sharing more), users had to exert effort to reformulate their understanding of what was shared by default, and work to understand how to keep certain information from being made more widely available.

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.

It is unclear what is public and non-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.

You cannot preview what information Facebook shares with sites and apps

No Training (Instructions)

Finally, Facebook does not provide any training and only minimal instructions for users on how to manage privacy settings.

Solutions

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 user expectations, given the most recent changes to Facebook’s privacy policy, it’s hard to imagine how much more the Facebook privacy policy can change. So, from an expectations standpoint, I guess that could be considered good?

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.

Globe icon indicates shared information

Finally, in terms of training, it’s fortunate that a number of people outside of Facebook have already stepped up to provide users instructions on how to use Facebook’s privacy settings. For example, in a post that dominated the NYT “most emailed” for over a month Sarah Perez explained the 3 Facebook settings she though every user should know after Facebook made sweeping changes to their privacy policy that dramatically increased the amount of information from a profile that is shared publicly. Then, after the most recent changes (in April 2010) Gina Trapani at Fast Company provided easy to use instructions complete with screen shots.

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)

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About Richard Pak

Associate Professor at Clemson University/Department of Psychology

5 Responses to Facebook and Privacy: A Guest Post by Kelly Caine

  1. Samuel Ericson May 8, 2010 at 5:30 am #

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  4. Judith Tiferes May 10, 2010 at 9:26 am #

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