Alec Saunders has 1,400 people he calls “friends,” at least on Facebook. Some are truly friends from his real life — many are business contacts, and some are people he met online.
Until today, Saunders — who foundedIotum, developer of the popular Free Conference Calling application for Facebook — had little way of segmenting his friends and regulating what they could see.
Now, thanks to new privacy controls the popular social networking site introduced on Wednesday, he can do just that.
“This has been a long time in coming,” Saunders told TechNewsWorld. “The social networks have been blurry in how they let users categorize people. You haven’t been able to differentiate who is a business contact and who is a personal one.”
Facebook’s new features let users limit access to content such as photos or personal contact information to specific individuals or lists.
Among other new features is a “friends of friends” option that gives users a wider audience. In addition, Facebook is reportedly developing chat functionality.
The privacy changes are giving substance to Facebook’s claims that it respects its users’ privacy. The company’s reputation has taken a hit over the years, stemming from accounts of minors being targeted by sexual predators. More recently, Facebook was stunned by a swift and angry user revolt over its intrusive Beacon ad platform.
Indeed, as social networking moves toward the second generation of applications — not to mention users — it is clear that privacy controls are becoming more important.
“Facebook is making the inevitable correction they needed to make,” John McCrea, vice president of marketing for Plaxo, told TechNewsWorld.
Facebook erred with its original model, “which is to use the word ‘friend’ to describe all relationships you have online,” he said.
“The first phase of social networking was about fun and frivolity, and the word ‘friend’ was used in an extremely casual way — it stretched the definition to the point where one’s affinity for Captain Morgan’s spiced rum was a basis for friendship online,” McCrea pointed out.
More segmentation and privacy controls will be of increasing importance, he said, as data portability — that is, being able to import lists of friends to other social networks — becomes more prevalent.
Such controls are more important to users now that they are leveraging these sites for practical as well as fun purposes, agreed Darrell Lerner, cofounder ofSNAP Interactive, a software developer responsible for two applications on Facebook — Are You Interested? and Meet New People.
“These privacy controls provide users with much more freedom and flexibility in controlling who exactly sees their information, and determining which parts of their profile they are comfortable exposing to the ‘real world,'” he told TechNewsWorld. This is a feature that all social networking sites would be wise to duplicate, he added.
If marketed correctly, these controls could become a competitive advantage for Facebook, noted Kyle Spector, an analyst with futurist consulting firmSocial Technologies.
“Facebook’s new privacy controls will add an extra incentive for the many users who are now using multiple sites for each type of relationship — that is, LinkedIn for business contacts, Facebook for friends and school contacts, MySpace for everything else — to invest most of their time in one social networking site where they can fine-tune who sees what information,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“This move could certainly force other social networks to follow suit and make it potentially difficult for niche networks to compete with Facebook,” he added.
Facebook is addressing a long-term issue that has stymied social networks until now, according to Spector.
“There is a deep divide between digital natives and digital immigrants on these sites, and a lack of common online etiquette, for instance, between teens and parents who might both be on Facebook,” he observed.
“This will at least allow users to erect some barriers between the groups until digital natives and digital immigrants become more comfortable with each others’ presence on social networking sites,” Spector commented.