Facebook's Privacy Crisis Is Also Its Opportunity

You can set your watch by it: After sudden success comes a backlash, and right now, Facebook is getting backlash from all sides. Privacy advocates are attacking the company. Regulators in the U.S. and abroad are asking questions or openly criticizing it. Some users are considering canceling their accounts while others (like me) have stripped their profiles of data and grown cautious about their updates.

But every crisis brings an opportunity. Facebook can emerge from the privacy brouhaha it started a lot stronger than it was before it began. Of course, it won’t be easy and if Facebook fumbles, it will almost surely emerge a lot weaker.

A lack of nuance

The controversy is pushing Facebook into the middle of an unpleasant and messy conversation that has needed to take place ever since the social web began to mature nearly a decade ago. Right now, the debate is about privacy protection but at its heart it’s also about discretion and the freedom to exercise that discretion whenever we choose.

In the world beyond the web we habitually show different sides of ourselves in different situations. But the current structure of the web doesn’t allow for any nuance. Offhand comments can be preserved for decades, to be repeated again and again. Random actions can be tracked by advertisers, and shape how they respond to you. Managing your online persona involves forethought, perseverance and sometimes hard lessons. Right now, the social web is designed as if you have only one identity, when in fact we all have complex and sometimes contradictory aspects to ourselves. Some people thrive in this environment, but for most there’s a learning curve ahead.

Facebook, with its Open Graph, ignored this learning curve, just as it did with Beacon a few years ago. And so it has stumbled right into the thick of this thorny debate of how we manage ourselves online. But precisely because of the company’s central position, it’s ideally positioned to find a way to solve it, and ultimately to profit from it. It has a chance to lead a long-term effort to clarify the privacy issue, and design a broadly accepted social network that can accommodate some of the complexities of human nature.

A broader challenge

But will Facebook seize that opportunity? It’s not looking good. The company held an all-hands meeting last week to discuss privacy protections, but it wants to keep the details of that discussion private. Its insistence that users love the new changes also rings false. Most users are divided between tolerating the changes or being uneasy about features that benefit Facebook and its partners while offering little value to users themselves. There are already plenty of people who have chosen to remain absent from Facebook and social networks in general. Open Graph threatens to add more people to that publicity-shy camp. Instead of becoming ubiquitous on the web, Facebook risks becoming useful to an increasingly smaller portion of the web’s population.

Emerging from its current crisis will be painful. Facebook needs to capitulate, if not to its loudest critics, than to the concerns of its everyday users. For most people, 50 different privacy settings is 49 too many. To appeal to the widest audience as possible, default settings need to keep all user data restricted to users’ friends. The challenge to engineers is then to make customizing privacy controls as intuitive and welcoming as possible. The broader challenge for Facebook’s leadership is to entice us into voluntarily offering more personal information to the web at large.

Some of us are already sharing our lives to the web at large, while many of us never will. But what we all have in common is that the decision of where to draw the line between our public and our private selves belongs to us, and no one else. Honoring that principle will mean Facebook forgoes short-term revenue. But over the long term it’s the surest way for Facebook to reach its potential.

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