Saturday, October 9

Are Facebook Groups Another Violation of Privacy?

It wasn’t all that long ago when I was hollering about Facebook Places, the feature that lets people “check in” to places and tag their friends as being there with them. If Tom and Mike decide to stop for a beer and Tom checks in at the bar, tagging Mike at the same time, Mike had better hope that his wife is not Facebook Friends with either one of them. If she is, she’s going to know that her husband is not working late – or at least she’ll know that Tom SAYS her husband is not working late. At least Facebook Places has an option under Privacy Settings to disable your friends’ ability to check you in.

(Let me pause here and say that if you don’t know where this is, that would probably be a result of Facebook burying this option. I’m guessing here, but I would say that Facebook really doesn’t want you blocking friends from checking you in, because they want Places to become popular and they’re convinced tagging friends is crucial to that. Here’s what you do. From the Account menu, choose Privacy Settings. Look for the link that says “Customize Settings” and click that. Scroll down to “Things others share” and look for “Friends can check me in to Places.” Click the Edit button to the right of that and on the next screen choose Disabled. How’s that for buried deep?)

Now we have a another new feature, called Groups. Anyone can make a Facebook Group. To explain to you what one of these is gets a little complicated, so bear with me. We’ve always had Friends. People ask to be your Friend, you ask to be Friends with someone else, and then you see things about each other in your News Feed. If you’re a Facebook user, then you’re familiar with how this works. One key element to it is that when someone asks to be your Friend, Facebook checks with you to see if that’s okay. I wish, no…I long for the day when people were smart enough to only become Friends with other people they actually know, but expecting people to be smart is asking too much. (There! My obligatory “Men in Black” reference. If you’ve never seen the movie, go Netflix it now.)

Then we used to have a feature called Fan Pages. Someone would create a page and others could become Fans of it. Fan pages might be for a person, a sports team, a business, an organization or cause – anything could have a page. When you became a Fan of a page, all of your Friends were told “Mark Lautenschlager became a fan of Burping Softly Around Women.” with the implication being that if I liked something, you might also, and you should go take a look at the page. We still have these pages, but we just don’t call them “Fan Pages” any longer. It seems that the word “fan” doesn’t translate well into other languages and cultures. In America, we know that it’s short for “fanatic,” implying the enthusiastic support of something. But the rest of the planet thinks fanatics are bad. Just ask the Brits, where people become “supporters” of their “athletic clubs.” (I’ll let you make your own athletic supporter joke here.)

So Fan pages became just Pages, and we didn’t become a Fan, we just clicked the Like button. We already were used to clicking Like for things about our Friends that we saw on our News Feeds, so it was a simple extension. And again, you must choose to click Like. I can’t Like something FOR you.

Finally, we had Lists. A Facebook List was something that we made for ourselves. We could assign Friends to a List, and then we could send a single message to everyone, etc. It was a sort of mailing list feature, not many people even knew it existed, and hardly anyone used it.

So, what’s a Group? A Facebook Group is a combination of all of these. I could create a Group for family members, for my interest in playing World of Warcraft, for my church, for the pub I frequent – literally anything! When I create a Group, a page for that Group is made and I am the Administrator of the page. “How is that different from a Facebook Page made by some company or sports team,” you ask? Excellent question. First, Facebook claims that only an “authorized representative” of the subject of that Page can administrate it. That’s not true, as it happens. I created a Page for our church, and while if you asked them they would tell you that I certainly am “authorized” to do this, there is no way Facebook knows this.

The really BIG difference is this: Business, organizations, or people who create Facebook Pages have to get you to click that Like button, in order to attach yourself to the Page. They have the task of getting the word out about their Page. Every company in Western society has the little blue “F” logo on their website, TV commercials sport the URL for their Page, etc. Most of all, they’re counting on people to Like their Page, hoping that Friends of the people who Like their Page will see it and exclaim “Oh-ho! I didn’t know that the Frog Admirer’s Society had a Facebook page!” followed by visiting the Page and Liking it also.

Not so with a Group. With a Facebook Group, any member of the Group can add you to that Group. “Yeah, but surely Facebook will ASK me, right?” I can hear your indignation. You’d think so, but no. Adding someone to a Group is just like tagging them in a Photo or Video. As long as someone is your Friend and part of the Group, they can add you to it also. And you can’t stop them, no matter what you do. Once you are a member of a Group, you will start receiving notifications of activity within the group, including email messages sent to the Group. And all of your other Friends will see that you’ve been added to this Group.

And you can’t opt out of this. So, what can you do?

Well, the first time someone adds you to a Group that you’re not happy about, you can remove yourself from that Group, just like you can remove your tag from a photo or video. Once you’ve done that, not only can you not be added back to that particular Group (unless you request to be added back), but the person who added you and prompted the remove request will not be able to add you to any OTHER Groups, ever. That’s something, I suppose, but it’s still definitely closing the barn door well after the horses have left.

In the past, when you wanted to recommend a Page to me, you could do just that. You’d send me a suggestion that would tell me you think I’d like this page, and I could choose whether I wanted to Like it also, or not. No more. Now all of your Facebook Friends have the power to decide what you might like, and sign you up.

And with the “one strike and you’re out” policy, you’d better never make a mistake in adding any of your Friends to a Group. One remove request and you’re struck with the ban stick, forever.

Mark Zuckerberg said at a press conference, “We aren't trying to be hyperbolic when we say this is going to be a fundamental shift in the way people use Facebook.” Personally, I’m troubled by the fact that the new design of Groups seems to be solving the “problem” of people either not recommending a Group to their Friends, or their Friends declining to join.

Facebook has fixed what was not broken.

No comments: