★ On Granularity and Controlled Distribution of Information

This post is a follow-up to my previous article about Privacy which you may want to read first, On Privacy in a World of Multiple Sunshine Tests. In that post, I explained how increased transparency online would make our daily lives increasingly tricky in terms of choosing what actions are appropriate, given the increased number of people who will be able to judge them.

Privacy is disappearing faster and faster. Facebook’s recent announcements are just the latest and greatest developments in a change in society that has been coming together with the Internet, but is about to get a lot more attention when people start realizing the implications of living in public.

Louis Gray has a great write-up of the various sides of the debate. He concludes:

Facebook has an opportunity now to leverage their social capital and grow to be more of the rest of the Web – even if their users would not have given them permission in advance. Whether you think we are approaching the point of no return, or if we already crossed it, that’s the direction and you can’t undo it. Just plan on your data online being public – all of it.

Robert Scoble, in his usual early adopter stance, argues that Privacy is over, and concludes with some interesting next steps, one of which makes a good intro to this post:

We need new skills to deal with our new lack of privacy. How do we make sure Facebook doesn’t share what we don’t want shared? There’s lots of discussion on that around the web but we need more.

This brings me to the subject of today — that the key to privacy online is granularity.

Granularity means controlling exactly who gets to see what you share. And it should be as easy as choosing what to include in a letter to a specific friend. It should almost become a second nature that when you share something, you intuitively know who will see it. And it should be good enough for us to trust that the right bit of info will get in front of the right eyes, not anyone else. But right now, we’re nowhere near that, and the lack of trust in Facebook is making some people leave, while some others will just silently share less.

Granularity is by no means new (any company who has had to create a permissions-based software has had to deal with this). But as I see it today, no one has fully figured it out to a level where it’s both specific enough to be able to share with the right group, and simple enough so that people actually use it beyond the default setting. I think getting this right requires two levels of improvements to our current sharing systems: interface improvements and distribution control improvements. Let’s look at each of those after the break.

First, it’s going to be an interface problem

How do I select who to share something with? I can’t imagine that no one can figure it out better than this:

The Facebook Publisher privacy selector gives you multiple options but you need to go into "Custom" to be more restrictive than all your friends

Hidden in a small button, is a dropdown where all options are broader than “Friends”, with “Custom” leading to a complex menu of include/exclude settings… Has anyone ever used this thing? So Facebook, while the most advanced social networking tool on the planet (or at least the biggest), hasn’t cracked it yet. (Of course, it’s also because they want us to use the “Everyone” setting and not care about it…)

But if we look at competitors (who clearly have an interest in being better at this!), nothing quite meets the requirements:

The Buzz privacy selector is simpler: public or private, and in private defaults groups are easier to change.

Even Google, the king of the simple interface, is having a tough time with providing sufficient granularity while keeping things simple. And although the promise of algorithm-based relevance is very nice (more on that below), at the moment Buzz is full of content I’m not really interested in reading. I follow people who are interesting for one aspect or another of their personality, but I don’t want nor need to see their baby pictures, however cute and all.

Like Facebook, Buzz’s mechanism also requires one to create and manage groups. And although I think Google Contacts makes a better job at this than Facebook Lists, it is still such a pain to tag several hundred contacts that I don’t see anyone reasonably time-conscious doing it. There has to be a better solution! For instance, auto-created groups of contacts based on interests would be an interesting one to pursue [1].

Before moving on, let’s just mention Twitter’s privacy system, which keeps it so simple that we could almost call it non-existent: it’s either private or public. Nothing in-between. [2]

Second, it’s going to become a distribution control problem

Once we get past these interface difficulties (they are details that are tough to get right, but they are still merely the surface of a system), comes the hardest part of this: how do we prevent someone who has access from re-sharing / re-publishing our semi-private actions? I see two approaches at the moment: relevance-based systems and permissions-based systems. Any good system will obviously combine the two, but let’s examine them separately.

Relevance: can it create a good enough “effective privacy”?

Basically, it’s the idea that you can share whatever you want, and only the most relevant content will be shown to viewers. It looks like that’s the approach Google Buzz wants to take, but it clearly doesn’t work well yet. And it’s also something Facebook really sucks at at the moment. Their news feed algorithms simply fail at consistently showing me the posts from my closest friends and family, and I’m not the only one!

Of course, relevance models will never work not for all uses. I’m just not sure our societies are ready to live in the open (trusting that people will only look at the most relevant stuff, and discard the rest). But for the basic sharing of interests and “likes” that we do daily, it could work.

Will we need some kind of DRM for user-generated content ?

It’s fun (or not so fun, but interesting…) to think that for the past 10 years, some Internet users have been benefiting from the absence of control on distribution of digital information, and now they might start to suffer from it [3].

Online piracy was made (and still is) possible only with the lack of control on distribution and diffusion of digital media. And while Apple is slowly turning their hardware and software into a closed distribution system, the vast majority of the web is still completely free to share whatever they want, meaning any piece of information that you create will be shareable by anyone who has access to it in the first place. Once it’s out, it’s out of control.

So how can we put some kind of control in place? How do we make sure our “semi-private” lives don’t become fully public through our friends’ sharing activities, whether intentionally or not [4]. Now, we would almost want to be able to prevent unauthorized people from viewing this content, right?

  1. Basically, I want Google (or Facebook) to automatically suggest which Friends should receive each post, and let me validate. []
  2. To their credit, at least Twitter doesn’t try to confuse the user into thinking they’re in a “friends-only” private environment! []
  3. To take the classic example: when college party pictures become accessible to new employers or law enforcement authorities… []
  4. For instance, we can now extract our Facebook news stream as an RSS Feed. How hard would it be to republish it? []

About Jean Friesewinkel

Jean is a Belgian engineer and Node.js developer. After 4 years in strategy consulting, Jean is now developing WiseRadar, a personalized news service designed to help startups grow their business. On Strategyist, he writes about web strategies and startups that change the world. He also loves sailing, cooking & photography.

26. April 2010 by Jean Friesewinkel
Categories: Privacy, Social | Tags: , , , , | 5 comments

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  1. Pingback: Your Friends are the Limit: Why Facebook can’t stop Twitter « Strategyist

  2. Pingback: The Facebook Alienation: Pleasing the Wrong Stakeholders « Strategyist

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