As Fred Stutzman noted, Facebook Broke Its Culture this week. In an attempt to provide something that would make people’s lives easier, they created a privacy trainwreck. Earlier this week, they unleashed a feature that notified all of your “friends” of EVERY update that you make. Live. Feed style. Users panicked! Sure, anyone could’ve written a script to do that. Sure, it’s data that’s already there. But not in aggregate. The problem is that sometimes people don’t want information to be easier to access.
Not all “friends” are friends. Sometimes, you say yes to save face but you count on those people not actually being stalkers. They don’t really watch your page with any focus so most of what you put up goes by unnoticed. But not if all of your “friends” are notified of your every move.
As the chaos mounted, people started protesting. Nearly 700,000 joined a “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group. Others discussed boycotting the service or deleting their accounts.
Apparently, Facebook is paying attention to this uproar. It doesn’t sound like they’re going to revert the feature but, instead, let people opt out. Yet, at the same time, they think that people will get used to it. And they are telling their users why they should like it. (Gosh i hate when people try to configure their users.)
This situation is quite interesting. People are taking to the (virtual) streets to object to what the architects are doing their (virtual) city. They don’t like the changes in the architecture and they want their voices heard. And it also looks like virtual protesters can raise a far greater ruckus than the ones in meatspace.
While digital communities are fantastic, one of the issues is that people don’t actually own the turf in which they’re creating cultural artifacts. When earthquakes rattle digital streets, it’s not Mother Nature at work. It’s the work of a Corporation. We all like to think that these corporations have the best of intentions and we rely on them to serve the people. Yet, as Sasha is always reminding me, they are not elected officials, this is not a democracy, it’s a benevolent dictatorship. We count on the creators to be benevolent but they can make an earthquake whenever they want and we still have to clean up the pieces.
I wonder what this protest cost Facebook. I also wonder if they will learn from this. (I still have immense respect for Six Apart from the time when they pissed off their users and apologized and changed.) But more than anything, i wonder when companies will start thinking of their users as constituents and think about engaging them before executing major changes to the foundation of their social interaction. Of course, i recognize it’s a tradeoff. Companies don’t want to leak what they’re doing pre-launch but if they change things radically, they piss off their core members. And the core members disengage emotionally because they don’t feel as though they’re a part of the system. Yet, in my opinion, to use Kathy Sierra’s phrase creating passionate users is *everything*. And that means engaging them rather than being as dramatic as Mother Nature.
Update: I decided to respond to myself. Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama