Facebook has improved its privacy controls. Should we trust it not to screw up again?

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May 27 2010 11:37 AM

Friends Again

Facebook has improved its privacy controls. Should we trust it not to screw up again?

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I'm happy Facebook did all this. But while the changes are likely to stem the current outcry, I doubt that this is the end of our stormy relationship with Facebook. We're likely to see the same movie play out again and again: Six months or a year from now, the media, tech bloggers, and lawmakers will start yelling about the site once more. Zuckerberg, again, will be forced to respond. You watch.

Why? Because Facebook has become more deeply intertwined with our daily lives than just about any other recent tech innovation. You may spend more time on Google, spend more money on Amazon, and have more fun at YouTube, but none of those sites are about your real life or your friends, family, and co-workers. Facebook is trying to do something much more difficult than other tech firms: It's trying to build a business based on people's real identities—out of information that we all feel we have the right to control. Facebook is doing this in order to make a whole lot of money, surely, but also because its executives genuinely believe that the Web and the world will be much more pleasant if more people connect with one another.

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Here's the crazy thing: We agree with them. For all the criticism in the media and tech circles, we've continued to use Facebook just as much as before. The company is constantly examining usage data—overall traffic, the number of times people log in, the frequency with which people deactivate or delete their profiles, the rate at which new people join the site, users' willingness to post new stuff, and much more. According to both Zuckerberg and Taylor, there was no evidence of a mass defection in any of those metrics.

Facebook did notice a decline in its Net Promoter score, which measures how often people are recommending the site to their friends. But when executives looked in to the decline, it turned out to be unrelated to privacy. "It was entirely correlated with our change to make posts from games less prominent in the newsfeed," Taylor said. "People were upset because they weren't updating their farm in FarmVille or updating their island in Happy Island as regularly because those stories were less prominent."

If users weren't actually changing their behavior in response to fears over privacy, why the huge outcry? The main problem is that Facebook leaps before looking—it's fond of making changes to the site but doesn't stop to consider the impact of those changes until lots of people start screaming. Nothing that Facebook said or unveiled this week suggests it has solved this fundamental problem. Our personal information is a touchy subject. And I'm not sure we can have this conversation without some amount of yelling.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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