Privacy Concerns and Social Networks

myspace facebook privacyIt was refreshing to see MySpace break out of its relative silence this week with a note addressing user privacy settings on social networks. Good to see you again MySpace, though we sometimes forget you’re still around we’re no longer threatening to delete our long-nascent profiles en masse or anything like that.

MySpace served itself well by publishing the note MySpace Empowers Users With New, Simpler Privacy Setting in outlining the company’s ethos and it’s mission to enable both discovery and self-expression for users since its inception in 2003.

But MySpace’s memo falls short on definition and lacks any sort of road map (beyond “in the coming weeks…”) to give users the “we’re in this together” feeling that Facebook so often overlooks. And it’s more than 3 weeks after the Facebook open graph-api-privacy hubbub broke out. Facebook privacy concerns made headlines again on May 5 when a glitch that provided access to some users’ private information was uncovered (and allegedly patched within hours).

This tactic isn’t the result of a Friday “why not?” post on TechCrunch, it is just the kind of reactionary stage-stealing that any startup needs to capitalize on to rise to the top and evolve proactively. The fact that Facebook has broken out so far ahead of the pack over the past year makes it surprising that such reactions aren’t scripted months in advance. Twitter manages to evolve more subtly as it remains a relatively small and nimble, privately held company.

It’s been a long two years since Facebook leapfrogged MySpace in terms of unique visitors and never looked back. MySpace still boasts about 50 million monthly uniques — down from 100 million in 2008 — compared with 130 million for Facebook according to compete.com (March 2010). Exactly why MySpace should be capitalizing on any negative attention (whether deserved or not) that Facebook draws as often as possible. I’m specifically referring to the latest string of changes in the evolution of Facebook’s privacy settings, the opening of its social graph, and the way in which these changes have been poorly communicated to users. The first reaction to any change in policy or terms of service from Facebook has been one of general dismay followed by threats of ditching the service, and inevitably acceptance.

Facebook claims to have 400 million active users spending 500 billion hours per month on the service. Similar and competing companies such as MySpace should not hesitate to distinguish themselves from any criticism Facebook attracts (however warranted it may be). But the reality may be that MySpace and every other social network out there remains timid about privacy standards and user expectations and awareness.

The internet is still very much the wild west. And hackers will always be one step ahead of the law and security systems meant to stop them. As Bruce Schneier says, “You can’t defend. You can’t prevent. The only thing you can do is detect and respond.” It’s very cut-and-dry: post personal information to a free service such as Facebook or MySpace and assume that anyone would be able to find it. Though the internet often feels like a geek’s best friend, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not “all about you.”

What one publishes to the internet is out there – whether or not it works against them or to their advantage, or fades into the ether. But this is an opt-in society. It seems ludicrous and unnecessary to feature 50 privacy settings with 170 options as Facebook now does but it is important for users to seriously consider what they choose to share and with whom they choose to share specific types of content and data. It’s equally important for social networks to work with its core users, and to that end, we’ll see if Facebook takes a step back and refines the new settings.

But is MySpace referring to privacy settings or sharing options in offering a sort of one-click privacy function, with options including “public, friends only, or public to anyone 18 or over?”

Open systems have their pros and cons, but in the end — ideally — it all shakes out. The same can be expected of the OpenSocial platform, which MySpace endorses as a developer platform. New applications have been released in recent days such as SaveFace and ReclaimPrivacy that can restore user privacy settings in Facebook. It remains to be seen whether Facebook will act to ban such applications from the social network.

Facebook will inevitably face more negative publicity approaching the fall release of The Social Network, a major theatrical release which apparently portrays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a “ruthless and untrustworthy sex maniac.” Meanwhile MySpace is poised to make a splash with a new look rumored to debut later this year. If Jones and Co can parlay this privacy issue into some real momentum while Facebook leaves its users to figure everything out for themselves… you never know – but “simpler” isn’t always better.

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