Facebook is making changes that are designed to give users more control over how they share information, and to compete with Google+. But will these changes make people less likely to share content on these networks — and how will that affect the social web?


Facebook is in the process of rolling out a sweeping series of changes to the way users can control their profiles and content-sharing on the massive social network. Among other things, the changes allow users to selectively share status updates or content with certain groups of friends, just as Google+ introduced the idea of Circles, which allow users of that network to segregate the people they follow into specific groups. These kinds of features are seen by many as a positive step for privacy — but will they make people less likely to share what they are doing with the public at large? And how will that affect the social web?

As my GigaOM colleague Colleen Taylor notes in her post about the news, the new Facebook features involve a number of changes to the way that user profiles, photos, tagging and other elements of the social network are handled. In some cases users now have new abilities — such as the ability to specify who can see specific pieces of content they upload, or the ability to reject a tag that someone has applied to a photo without their permission — and in other cases existing settings have been made more visible or easier to get to, such as the changes that let you control who sees your profile page. The Facebook blog has a rundown of all the changes with screenshots.

An improvement for privacy, or just less sharing?

Many of the responses to these changes focused on how they were clearly Facebook’s response to Google+ (although the social network denied this, saying it has been working on the new features since before Google+ was launched) and how they are a big improvement for a social network that has been criticized so often in the past for playing fast and loose with users’ privacy. Erica Newland, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, praised the new settings in a comment she made to CNET:

I think we are seeing a trend right now towards empowering users to have granular controls over types of information they share or information about them that is shared. It’s a sign that companies like Facebook and Google are competing on privacy.

Some of the changes, such as giving users the ability to reject a tag on a photo, are clearly a good thing. The whole idea that users could tag you in a picture without even asking you — and thus have it posted to their stream and elsewhere for plenty of people to see, even if you weren’t actually there — seemed kind of odd to me when Facebook first announced it (as did the ability to tag people at certain places). And choosing who can see your profile also makes sense, especially for people who want to protect their profile from being seen by bosses, co-workers, etc. for some reason.

But the part that got me thinking was the Circles-style ability to pick from a drop-down menu who to share a particular update with. Facebook said that in addition to allowing users to choose either “Public” (a setting formerly known as “Everyone”) or “Friends,” the new feature would be broadened over time to allow the creation of custom sharing settings as well as the ability to share with Groups or lists. And that makes me wonder about how many people will use it, and the effect it will have on the social network as a whole.

How many will actually use these features?

Don’t get me wrong — I understand that some people may just want to share certain photos with their family, or status updates about a specific topic with a certain group of friends. I know people who don’t like Facebook and some other social networks in part because they feel like they are being forced to share their whole lives with the world, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. As blogger Robert Scoble notes, this is pretty common with older users and with people who just aren’t all that social to begin with. And maybe Facebook’s changes and Google+ Circles will allow them to manage that in a way that makes them feel more comfortable.

But I keep coming back to my own use of Facebook and Google+ when it comes to these kinds of features. I know that I am not a typical user, but that’s part of my point — if even I can’t be bothered to create Facebook lists and groups and Google+ Circles to segregate my various interests, because doing it is so time-consuming and fiddly and irritating, then how can we expect people who aren’t familiar with such networks to do so? There’s a certain amount of cognitive friction involved in doing these kinds of tasks — not to mention what some call the “paradox of choice” — that makes it less likely people will do them at all.

I eventually just gave up my attempt to create a range of specific Google+ Circles, and now have one big group of everyone I am following, and one that is topic-specific. I don’t have any Facebook groups or lists at all that I use regularly. Are people really going to spend the time it takes to create groups or lists or Circles and then choose from a pull-down menu every time they want to share a piece of content? I don’t think so (even Mark Zuckerberg once said that people hate lists). And my fear is that people will share less as a result, or will turn away from these networks in confusion, or because the settings are too cumbersome.

I realize that not everyone wants to share everything, especially when it’s a photo or some personal information. But I for one enjoy seeing different aspects of the lives of people I follow on whatever social networks I belong to — I like seeing the personal photos mixed in with the business, or the jokes people use to lighten the mood. And I think the serendipity and sense of personal contact that comes from that kind of sharing is an important part of what makes the social web powerful, and the benefits that come from it.

I have nothing against people using Circles or lists or groups, or blocking off parts of their profiles if they wish. But I hope that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture in our rush to segregate our lives into different pieces in the name of privacy.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Ed Kohler

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  1. Perhaps I’m not a typical user, but I’m sharing more, and publicly, with Google Plus than I ever did with Facebook. The level of control has been quite liberating.

    With G+, I only have the default circles, minus one, plus a couple others. It’s not that complicated for my needs. And the ability is important. I simply do not necessarily want things I share with my family open to people I work with or with the students I teach (university). Not that what I share with others in my field is necessarily private, but my family doesn’t really care about the professional content I share.

    Student interaction makes the social web complicated, but with G+, I’m happy to add students to a limited circle. It’s been quite useful too. I’m looking forward to continual integration with other Google services. I can even see, for the first time, how G+, or services like it, with its ability to direct comments to specific people, might kill email.

    I realize Facebook may upgrade, but it might be too little too late. Not because the feature add on’s won’t necessarily integrate well but more because behavior is already ingrained on Facebook. We’ll see, I guess.

  2. Interesting question, but I don’t think the option to share with lists (that mimic circles) will reduce the amount of sharing. People are used to sharing to everyone on Facebook, so the option to refine who they share with won’t stop people from sharing. This may cause some segmentation between personal and business, but “the paradox of choice” or the inertia against creating lists, and the impulse to share are very different elements.

  3. “””But I for one enjoy seeing different aspects of the lives of people I follow on whatever social networks I belong to — I like seeing the personal photos mixed in with the business, or the jokes people use to lighten the mood. And I think the serendipity and sense of personal contact that comes from that kind of sharing is an important part of what makes the social web powerful”””

    Seriously??? You like to see your co-worker’s girl friend chilling out in a beach in a bikini? Get a life and get your own girl if you can ..

    Facebook is full of creeps like you, that’s why I like Google+ a bit better.

  4. Michael Lewkowitz Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    I think somehow they are splintering it against the grain of the web. The nature of the web has always been to connect and share around what we have in common more than who we have in common. Certainly feels very broken compared to what I love about the web and the more I think about it, reminds me of what I love about Twitter and blogs.

  5. i an eagarly waiting for the google+ invite,bt the google sala karing nautanki thats why i stil using the facebk….assholes wth a pole.

    1. nyk – lol. innovative use of Hinglish. let me know if you need an invite. I will invite karing :P

  6. Perhaps my “friends” are not representative, but about 2% of them contribute 90% of the updates (celebs aside). And 90% of them do virtually no updating, instead using FB as a simple address book (they might login but I can’t tell). So what behavior of the 90% are you affecting? And the bulk of the minority bears little interest to me most of the time. So instead what we will get is less spam and more relevance from the active participants, which is the arc of all marketing including what web 1.0 went through. And perhaps we can get more sharing from the inactive participants since they can now be more targeted.

    Personally that’s why I’ve really taken to G+. What I want to share with my college buddies is different than what I want to share with colleagues is different than family. Unless it isn’t, in which case I can share with all of them.

    The key is that we are shifting from mass communications to tailored relevant communications. The latter will win every time and is the true grain of the web, as Michael put it. What made Usenet great, as an early example, wasn’t that it was a firehose, it’s that I subscribed to rec.food.drink.beer because I wanted to learn about new beers from likeminded people. Relevance.

  7. It is a commentary that you think that “the changes allow users to selectively share status updates or content with certain groups of friends” (though you evidently know of Lists) and that “Google+ introduced the idea of Circles” ignoring the fact that both FB and Dispora* have used this idea.

  8. The analysis is convincing about lists. But why on earth is it a “fear” that people will share less? People share too much!

    If social media is broken, it’s because Facebook was too aggressive in breaking people’s boundaries for too long and made people gun-shy, not because they hate making these lists. Now with all these multiple platforms its inevitable the social media audience will splinter, as you suggest.

  9. This article misses the point because it’s buying into FB/Google spin. The privacy issue that concern smost users is not that their content may be seen by friends, or friends of friends, or by everyone. It’s that the social network owners themselves cannot be trusted to use the information they’re gathering responsibly.
    The problem is that the owners of social networks store all content, and map relationships between users (eg rejected friend requests) and:
    1. Routinely pass this information to government agencies;
    2. Use algorithms to filter your social networking experience, removing the random and serendipitous.

  10. Are Google and Facebook splintering the social web?
    Who cares?
    I have no need for any of these so-called social (antisocial) plans. They have fragmented society.

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