It seems like every other post I read these days is about whether Facebook violated users trust, or whether they were wrong, or right in opening up more.  It’s eerily repetitive for someone that’s written 2 (and 3rd on the way) books on the subject and who’s been following Facebook pretty intimately for the past 3 or more years since they launched their platform and exploded like wildfire.  Originally, it was “Facebook is too private”, or “Facebook is a walled garden”.  Suddenly, Facebook opens up, and it happens again, but this time “Facebook is too open”, or “Facebook killed privacy”, or “My trust has been violated”.  I don’t know why it bugs me, because this happens every year, some times a few times a year, and Facebook still keeps exploding like wildfire.

I’ve been debating this privacy post for awhile now, but I really want to get some thoughts out.  For a long time before Facebook became “open”, I had a post in mind where I really wanted to share why I thought Facebook’s “private by default” rules were cheating its users.  At the time, users were sharing information, but they really didn’t know that, despite the “walled garden” they were in, it was pretty easy to do a quick search on them, and, with just a simple Facebook account you could have their work history, name, location, picture, parties they got drunk at, and much, much more information all available to the public.  Look at this picture – this was in 2007!  Heck, even as far back as 2005 all they had to be is a friend to get access to that information – you apply for the job, they send a request, you accept because you want the job, and voila, all that information, exposed.  (Note that this picture doesn’t reveal the fact that most people didn’t lock down the pictures they saved)

Image courtesy AllFacebook.com, via Matt McKeon.

In the book I wrote with Jason Alba way back in 2007 (I’m on Facebook–Now What???), we shared these exact concerns – they were nothing new.  We shared the example of the “30 Reasons Girls Should Call it a Night” Group on Facebook, and warned, “Always be careful with what you put online, anywhere… photos, comments, thoughts, opinions.  Don’t write or upload something you might later regret!” (Chapter 8, Page 76).  We shared examples of people getting fired from their jobs simply because their friends were co-workers when they stated they were going to be sick and posted about partying all day on their Facebook profile.  We also shared (Page 44) that basically all your information was available to your friends and your entire network(s) by default at the time.  Remember – this was back in 2007.  Facebook had this problem way back then, and it’s amazing that this stuff is still very applicable!

The problem with starting out private is that users are being tricked into thinking their data will never be exposed.  It’s too difficult to know what is open, and what is private.  Sure, privacy controls are cool and all, but what good are they if no one knows how to use them and everyone just assumes that everything they put on the service will remain between just them and their “friends”?

That’s the dilemma Facebook “faced” as they had a “private by default” mentality.  In reality, being “private by default” was bad for the users because the users were being tricked into thinking their data could never become public.  Let’s face it – anything with a search box at the top that lets you search amongst at a minimum your friends, but in reality, at least since 2007 and even earlier, has the potential for the information you shared on that service to be discovered by anyone on the network itself.

Facebook had to make data public by default for them to be fair to their users.  Facebook was in a tough position to be in, but it was a necessary “evil” for the better good of their service.  Now, users can know with 100% certainty that the data they share is public by default and they should be careful before sharing it.

“But, Facebook should have made that opt-in”, you say?  The problem with that is Facebook would have still been cheating their users.  Instead, Facebook sent an e-mail to all their users notifying them of the change, and gave them the opportunity to opt-out.  In addition, the next time you logged into Facebook, all users (note that, according to Facebook’s stats, over half of Facebook users log in at least once daily) were prompted to adjust their privacy settings if they didn’t agree with the changes.  They did that again as they added new features, and thus, new privacy settings you could opt out of.

The fact is that Facebook had to open up in order for them to be fair to their users.  In my opinion, Facebook was being unfair to their users by not being open by default.  The fact is, regardless of this change, Facebook still has the best privacy controls of any service out there, and still gives you the most control over your privacy, but at the same time everyone now knows they have to set it to be so if they choose to be private.  At the same time everyone now knows they should now think twice before posting that drunk photo of them at the party last night.  At the same time we are becoming a much more open, less anonymous society.

Privacy is good.  So is openness.  Identity is good.  Anonymity is not.  By making Facebook a more open place, they are encouraging us, as a society to be more open about what we share.  They’re encouraging us to become more forgiving of one another.  They’re encouraging us to do fewer things in closets, and encouraging more to come out.  They’re encouraging entire regimes to share more, and thus, changing the world in the process.

While Facebook broke all of our trust, I think they’re making it right by making us a much more open society.  They’re removing anonymity amongst us in the process, and we’re growing because of it.  I hope they continue to build privacy controls.  At the same time I hope they continue to encourage us to be a more open people.  Let’s stop lying to ourselves – your data, when on the web, is almost never 100% private.  We need to stop cheating ourselves of that fact.