More Isn't Necessarily Better When It Comes To Preferences

from the keep-it-simple-stupid dept

Facebook has unveiled a new set of privacy settings that have been getting some positive reviews in some quarters. While I'm always happy to see a company that's not afraid to experiment with new privacy protections, I think Facebook has some more work to do on this one.

One problem has been identified by Chris Soghoian: if you're in an academic network, you can theoretically limit access to your profile based on each viewer's academic status at your institution. So if you're an undergrad, you can set things up so that your friends can see those pictures of you doing body shots, but your professors and TAs can't. The problem is that apparently, peoples' status is self-reported, and can easily be changed. So a nosy grad student could temporarily switch his status to "undergrad" and to get access to an undergraduate's photos. This seems like a problem.

The more fundamental flaw, I think, is that there are now way too many options. The exact options I see on my Facebook account are different from the ones Chris sees, presumably because he's a student and I'm not. But on my version of the preferences, there are a dozen categories of information, each of which have 6 to 8 different options. For example, there are separate privacy settings for "profile," "basic info," and "personal info." Do you have any idea what is in each of those categories? I don't. And then you have to decide whether each category will be available to "Only Me," "Some Friends," "All Friends," and "Friends of Friends." And you have to decide which of your "networks" will be able to see that information. And you can provide a list of people to exclude.

This is a bewildering array of options, and it's likely to retard the usefulness of Facebook's privacy features. When it comes to user preferences, a handful of carefully chosen options is better than allowing users to adjust every conceivable setting. A well-designed user-interface should economize on the user's valuable time and attention by giving him a reasonable number of options that encompass the most likely use cases. If you give users a huge number of options, most of them will give up in frustration, leaving them in a much worse position, privacy-wise, than if you'd given them a smaller menu of easy-to-understand options to choose from.

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Filed Under: complexity, preferences, simplicity
Companies: facebook

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2008 @ 10:31pm


    isn't creating confusion in facebook's interest? if it becomes too complicated, then people will simple stop caring and just go with the flow (eg. making more information available). this lets facebook make more ad money and capitalize on that social network "snooping on acquaintances" value.

    Of course, this assumes that there's a trade-off between a desire for privacy and the hassle of actually getting it, versus the versus the real threat of having the information out there. at some point its too much a hassle to care anymore. if i set my privacy settings wrong, i have no idea what other people see until it bites me. if i wear a tinfoil hat i'll probably double check things, but what, i'll probably have to register a second facebook account to check unless i rely on friends to tell me. most people won't and won't notice they'll be sharing more than they thought. And, to boot, all the in the name of more power for the user!

    creating confusion is the only way they can get beacon (or whatever their ad plan is) to work without pissing people off.

    i think the problem is that no one knows what these categories mean. right, what is the difference between basic and personal info? this is lawyer crap, where you throw an innocuous term in a contract, one that everyone generally understands to mean one thing, and then only once you reach the definition of that term later on do you realize that term has a substantially different meaning in the contract. sneaky lawyer crap.

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