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Disappearing Networks And Other Facebook Phenomena

Over the past few months, some important changes have been underway at Facebook. facebookSome are already noticeable when one visits the site, but there are others yet to become apparent. If you have no idea what I am talking about, come a little closer, I’ll tell you, “Facebook’s ditching its regional networks!” (I know, it’s no scoop, but did you really see that coming? If you subscribe to the Facebook blog, you probably did.)

My reaction to this revelation, though, is largely that of indifference, it doesn’t affect me one way or another. Probably because my activities on Facebook have never been network based, I have always taken care to set my privacy settings at ‘Only Friends’, which ensures that only the people on my friend list have access to my profile and the contents. And to be honest, except for the fact that it could possibly indicate the geographical location of a user, I’ve found the concept of regional network rather useless. In my defense, even Facebook admits (sort of) that these networks turned out to be pretty useless, apparently only 50 percent of the users ever joined regional networks.

Facebook first mentioned of a change in status quo in their 03 June post on their blog:

“…To make the site easier to understand, we’re taking the first step towards removing these regional networks…since they did not adequately reflect a world where people choose exactly the audience with whom they wish to share…made sense for those who wanted to be more open when Facebook was small, but they lost their utility as the site became global…”

In addition to frequently publishing posts regarding the matter on their blog, over the months, they have also maintained an active discussion thread for users to comment, air views and give suggestions.

zuckerbergOn 2nd December, Mark Zuckerberg was definitive when he revealed on the blog that the plan was to do away with regional networks completely and to create a privacy model that would allow users enough flexibility to choose what content they wish to reveal and to whom.

In essence, it’s Facebook’s success that has made the concept of regional networks redundant (There is an irony in there somewhere). There are just too many people on each regional network for a privacy setting based on it to be even considered practical. Why would I want to share personal profile contents with several hundred thousand strangers just because they happen to be on the same network as I am? I might as well share them with the rest of the world.

So, the reason cited makes immense sense, to me at least. But I am just one among the 350 million people who call Facebook their virtual home. The (Facebook) public opinion is divided on this – there are users who welcome this move, also ones who vehemently oppose it.

“It’s about time! The privacy settings based on Geographical Networks make no sense. I live in New York and that network has hundreds of thousands of people! Give me one reason why I would want to set privacy settings for that network. I think geographical networks should be eliminated altogether because they are useless and I am glad Facebook is headed in that direction,” commented a user on the Facebook blog. I am guessing, that’s the kind of response Mark Zuckerberg hoped to garner when he sent out his open letter.

Bet he didn’t anticipate this move would antagonize so many of his loyal patrons. Read on.

More than anything, the users who oppose the move are worried the removal of regional networks will hinder them in their effort to connect with those from their city or country. It will eliminate the option of regional network-based search and since not everyone publishes his or her location details on the profile, this will prove to be a big cause for concern; so, some have been rather vehement in their protestations. This is the worst idea ever. If they were going to eliminate regional networks, why did they bother making them in the first place? I moved a lot as a kid and never went to college so the ONLY network I can use is regional, bemoans a user. Facebook’s response to this: they’ll eventually move information about those networks to the profiles For example, “If a user’s regional network is a city, it will be listed in the “Current City” field. If it’s a region or country, it will be listed in a new “Current Region” field.”

Then there are users who think this content-based privacy update will make Facebook unnecessarily complicated. And they may not be entirely wrong to think so. Just thinking about managing individual privacy settings for all the content on my profile is giving me a faint headache. In light of all this, I can’t but ask this question: what if I don’t care to change the settings, or more likely, forget to change them? Will the default setting beam all the contents of my profile to, you know, ‘everyone’?

Dear Facebook, a post addressing all the various (hidden) privacy concerns would be appreciated, thank you.

In the middle of all this, TechCrunch has speculated (though they appear to be a tad unsure) that this may be another step towards the ‘twitterification’ of Facebook and that if it presses people to use the ‘everyone’ option in the privacy settings, it could end up making a lot of private data public without the user quite realizing it. Short of Facebook successfully brainwashing 350 million odd people, with recommendations, of all things, I don’t really see that happening.

Historically, people haven’t taken the changes on Facebook well. Almost every update it’s had has caused users to get up in arms and demand that Facebook revert to its previous avatar, in vain of course. So, not surprisingly, this latest change in status quo has shaken the user base, yet again. Once again, I don’t blame them. Facebook has changed its interface and features (even its domain name once) so many times since its humble birth in that Kirkland dorm room, it could practically qualify as a shapeshifter. There have even been threats (from users) about quitting Facebook altogether:

“I’m done with Facebook. Aside from the reasons listed, they’ve messed so many things up already. The friends list pages are gone, friends are no longer in alphabetical order so it’s hard to look someone up…. it’s so complicated for no good reason at all. Eliminate networks, make it just a simple site with private profiles, or public profiles. Until you fix your stuff, good bye Facebook.”

I am pretty sure they won’t make good on these threats, but it’ll be quite interesting to see how Facebook handles such challenges & powerful user reaction. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg will write another open letter, since he is turning into quite the PR pro.

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December 9th, 2009 by bhavya

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