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Facebook's Instant Personalization Is the Real Privacy Hairball

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Facebook at its f8 conference yesterday launched tools for websites to add a social layer by bringing over Facebook friend connections. These social plugins are available to any web developer and use a simple piece of code to add a Facebook frame onto a page, instantly make that page social. So, for example, if you visit, you could see what news stories your friends liked and shared there.

CNN doesn’t actually see that happening — to the news org it’s just a box it leaves open on its site for Facebook to populate — but it’s presumably happy because users get a more personal experience and stick around longer. And users don’t get identified for simply visiting a site; they have to log in to Facebook through a dialog box in order for their presence and activities to be shared with their Facebook friends.

Facebook also introduced a way for certain sites to push this further than everyone else. Three carefully chosen launch partners — Microsoft’s (s MSFT), Yelp and Pandora — have access to what Facebook is calling “instant personalization.” This is a powerful, inventive and creepy tool that the company hopes to extend to other partners but is testing the waters with these three first.

Ta-da! It’s personal

Instant personalization means that if you show up to the Internet radio site Pandora for the first time, it will now be able to look directly at your Facebook profile and use public information — name, profile picture, gender and connections, plus anything else you’ve made public — to give you a personalized experience. So if I have already publicly stated through my Facebook interests page that I like a musical artist — say, The Talking Heads — the first song I hear when I go to Pandora will be a Talking Heads song or something that Pandora thinks is similar.

The idea is that Pandora is a somewhat hard concept to explain to new users — before it existed, people didn’t have their own personalized radio stations based on similarities between artists and song. Now, new users will derive value from Pandora before they even sign up. The first time they load the page it will be to their favorite music.

This new sign-up customization has the biggest privacy implications of everything Facebook unveiled yesterday. Until now, when you browsed the web, it was safe to assume you were anonymous until you actively logged into a site. But in recent years, behavioral advertisers have started following us around as we browse, using cookies to find out where we’ve been in order to offer up customized ads on new pages we visit. (So if I’ve been shopping on Kayak for an upcoming trip, I might get ads about similar flights and travel destinations showing up on a page I visit later that day.) In the post-f8 world, when you show up to Yelp having never been there before, the page will now show a feed of restaurants and stores that your Facebook friends have liked and reviewed using Yelp before you go there.

I spoke with Facebook platform engineering lead Mike Vernal at f8 yesterday about instant personalization after having trouble grokking the concept when CEO Mark Zuckerberg threw it in as a “one last thing” during his f8 keynote. Vernal described the goal as that of creating a “magical” experience for users. However, he said Facebook is well aware that these privileges could be abused. “We’ve very cognizant of balancing building great user experiences and respecting privacy,” was how Vernal put it.

Vernal said Facebook has not finalized any plans for allowing additional sites into the instant personalization program. Users are also able to opt out entirely via a new option found at the bottom of the list on their privacy settings page. And further, if they want to prevent their friends from sharing their information with an instant personalization partner, users must block that specific application individually. Multiple Facebook employees told me the company was unsure about how to label the sensitive product and which partners were launching on it until the last minute.

I made this just for you

The problem is, users aren’t accustomed to instantly personal services, and we have no idea where that personal information is coming from. Going back to the relatively benign social plugins from the beginning of this story, it probably won’t be obvious to the casual visitor to that CNN doesn’t know anything about the story recommendations Facebook is providing. To most of us, it will look like CNN knows who we are. And further, while going to a brand-new website that instantly knows who you are might ultimately be useful, the first time it happens you’re going to freak out.

Facebook’s way of addressing that reaction is by placing an icon in every social plugin that leads back to an explanation on Facebook, and layering a big blue bar on top of the three sites — again, Microsoft’s, Pandora and Yelp — that are getting the special treatment. So when I go to Yelp today I’m greeted right up front with: “Hi Liz. Yelp is using Facebook to personalize your experience. Learn More – No Thanks.” That’s fine, but the fact is, this tool is designed to help users become acquainted with sites they’ve never been to before. So the experience is necessarily going to be foreign.

I recently signed up for a new web photo service by giving an email address and password. When I went to fill out my profile, there was already a picture of me staring back. Whoa. That’s useful, I guess — I didn’t have to find a headshot to upload yet again — but it weirded me out. It turned out the site was probably using Automattic’s (see disclosure below) Gravatar, to match my email with my profile pic. Clearly, Facebook’s not the only platform that wants to enable shortcuts to make my new web experiences better — expect this instant personalization to catch on, if users and privacy advocates don’t revolt and drive the company to drop the feature. We saw that happen with a cousin of this product, Facebook Beacon, three years ago.

But if my Facebook stream is any indication, some users have already caught onto this latest privacy tweak. Here’s one message making the rounds:

“Do NOT forget to OPT OUT of the new FB Instant Personalization sillyness. Under your Privacy Settings so 3rd parties cannot collect your personal data. Account–>Privacy Settings–>Applications & Websites–>@bottom is the Instant Personalization thing–>Uncheck Allow.”

But then, lots of people just hate change; every Facebook redesign, ever, has been protested. And so, like Facebook, we’ll have to wait to see how much instant personalization freaks people out. [digg=]

Disclosure: Automattic, maker of, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

How Facebook Should Fix Its Privacy Problem

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.

110 Responses to “Facebook's Instant Personalization Is the Real Privacy Hairball”

  1. KeveneveK

    Maybe my friends don’t have a clue on how to share my info? I mean, most of them are my relatives and people that I have known for years.. And I’m pretty good at knowing what sites to go to. Or does this only work if your on your facebook at the same time as browsing the net?

  2. There’s a number of resources my friends and I are actively using. So for me this new Facebook feature is really cool as I can view what my friends have commented or share the news by clicking the only button.

  3. I also opted out. I think it is CRAZY to have a site track your surfing habit, absolutely crazy. Inside FB, track me all you want, outside leave me alone. I can’t wait until the first fall out comes from unsuspecting FB users who have unwanted page links sent back to their wall and then to all their friends.

  4. I deleted my profile after a friend told me about it.
    The way I approached the matter is not through the “so what” idea but actually I asked myself, why is it so important to facebook to “leak” information out? I mean, fair enough you can disable it, but why shouldn’t I be the one to actually enable this? Why is it so important to this “networking service” to manage to leak information out, even just for a few seconds i click disable?
    I never received any message saying, Btw huey we have this new feature which can enable and it does this and that. All i got was a friend saying that, btw guys, if you don’t want this then do this and that.
    And I’m sorry but just because we are not paying customers we shouldn’t be taken for granted.

  5. Can I trust companies with personal details or private issues?

    What will happen to my interests when they are looking at their last cents and people make and offer for the information?

    But I am confused by all these… Is it that if you never used an application, nobody will get any more personal stuffs from you?

  6. I can’t decide if I care about this one. Most of my Facebook content is locked down to friends-only or friends of friends for some stuff. So these sites aren’t pulling my restaurant commentary for my friends, as I understand it. But I just jumped on Yelp, and I can tell that it’s pulling from one of my friends in particular, who must have her status updates set to public, I’m thinking? And I suppose that’s of interest, and she was posting in publicly anyway. So it’s just aggregating already public info.

    The one thing that is creepy is Yelp recognizing me before I’ve even signed in. That’s a little much. I do prefer to have to manually choose to link websites.

  7. I don’t see what all the damn fuss is about. Instant Personalization only allows sites to parse your PUBLIC PROFILE. Prior to this, if my site had your email address (as many do), and your email is searchable on facebook (as many are), I could’ve scripted the same functionality. If you’re that concerned about privacy, lock down your public profile.

  8. So, as you mentioned, in teeeeensy tiny grey lettering it says “Please keep in mind that if you opt out, your friends may still share public Facebook information about you to personalize their experience on these partner sites unless you block the application.”

    How does one go about doing this? I can’t find anything on FB about blocking this particular application.

  9. You had a nice article here, right up to the end where you blew it:

    “But then, lots of people just hate change”

    First, that isn’t journalism, it’s generalizing and opinionated. Second, it’s completely inaccurate. I have no problem with the exploration of new technologies or uses there-of. I think it’s actually a good idea that FaceBook pursued this and I will be interested to see where it goes and what it is capable of.

    The problem is that it is enabled by default and furthermore than users are virtually uninformed that the new service exists at all.

    Services like this should be opt-in, especially when its introduction will go completely unnoticed by most users so they have no idea they have even been signed up for the service in the first place.

    How did you miss this basic fact in your article’s conclusion?

    • That people who use Facebook are very opposed to change isn’t hard to see. The change from “Fan” to “Like” alone has caused mass outrage.

      And they are telling people about Instant Personalization. It says so in the article right here:

      “Facebook’s way of addressing that reaction is by placing an icon in every social plugin that leads back to an explanation on Facebook, and layering a big blue bar on top of the three sites — again, Microsoft’s, Pandora and Yelp — that are getting the special treatment. So when I go to Yelp today I’m greeted right up front with: “Hi Liz. Yelp is using Facebook to personalize your experience. Learn More-No Thanks”

  10. For me, the cost-benefit doesn’t stack up. As an averagely experienced web-user I am able to winnow out items of interest without this assistance, and I like to discover new things that could not be predicted from my profile. I would get quickly bored of all my favourite topics and songs were they to appear on every website. The benefits seem doubtful.

    The potential cost is that holes appear in the security either through my human error or hacker resourcefulness, and my privacy and identity is compromised.

    Can we not just let the monkey happily browse the jungle at his leisure instead of firing bananas at him through a cannon?

  11. I’ve always been interested in privacy, but never really worried because we all are hiding among the masses of users. This thing, however, really bugs me, and it got me to wrap my first layer of foil around my head. I tweaked my FF with Noscript and Cookie whitelist, basically blocking everything that I don’t need. FB is still open all the time, but I’m using a different browser for it.

    And finally, I do not want a personalized internet. Like someone here put it well, internet loses it’s weirdness.

  12. meatwad

    If you don’t uncheck “What your friends can share about you” options then your info is still shared through your friends account. Everything but relationship details and religious views are checked by default. I am unchecking mine until I see how it works and, would it be so hard for them to put a big button to opt-in or opt-out on the home page. Seems like it would clear up a lot of confusion and not cause a controversy.

  13. Facebook’s quickly becoming despicable. I, for one, am becoming a Facebook minimalist and might quit altogether. These guys need to know that we care about our privacy and won’t be stomped on.

  14. Studies have shown that users want a personalized experience on the web and Yelp and Pandora are natural choices for this. The problem for me is that the internet loses its weirdness and becomes bland when every site starts looking for things that my friends like, I want to be able to find something new. Also, I worry about Fb handling the secruity aspect of this correctly.

    I will disable for now but will continue to watch this because if implemented correctly I think it could provide a lot of value.

  15. Sounds creepy… What’s stopping someone from turning their website into Hal…



    Please Enter Your Credit Card Dave…

    (I would opt-out, but I haven’t signed up yet.)

  16. It’s not that we hate change. We hate change where the default is to invade privacy. I don’t mind yielding that privacy but someone else just giving it away without asking is theft. Google Buzz is a great example: evil == gone.

  17. As of today, there is a new privacy setting called “Instant Personalization” that shares data with non-facebook websites and it is automatically set to “Allow.” Go to Account > Privacy Settings > Applications and Websites and uncheck “Allow”. Please copy & repost

  18. Am I the only that is not “creeped out” by instant personalization? If this services makes a website more useful and relevant for myself, I don’t mind.
    The way Facebook is going you might as well delete your facebook account if you don’t like these “innovations”.

    • Well Daniel, the fact that your life is an open book, and you’re fine with that is ok by me. On the other hand, I suppose we should go back to the gold standard since you’re a fan of Ron Paul? To me that’s crazy and irresponsible. And guess what, I’m assuming you’re crazy and irresponsible too, since you’re his fan, or whatever you call it on FB. Maybe I’m mistaken, but that’s what happens when your life is an open book, right?

    • I tend to agree with Daniel, but I don’t like when FB sets applications like “instant personalization” ON as a default.
      They should let me know about the service, and let me decide whether I want to join it or not.

    • Oddly doesn’t bother me either. I’m keep 99% of my profile set to private, and instant personalization follows those settings when sharing w/ external partners.

  19. interesting that in germany they haven’t launched yet the new instant personalization.

    Maybe because of the big anti-facebook-hype in our country due the open (‘attack’)letter to zuckerberg from our consumer protection minister Ilse Aigner?

    • Hey steve, what do you mean? Does this block FB? Also have you checked out where you Flash Cookies are on you hard drive. Scary. Friggen internet knows everywhere I’ve been.

  20. Thank god I’m not using FB. This is insanity, and anyone who gives the slightest f*ck about maintaining their privacy should be afraid, VERY afraid of this.

      • I think Facebook should have turned that option off by default though. Or could have at least made proper announcements about the feature so that everyone knew what was going on.