An Interesting Trust Experiment Begins

June 24th, 2009 2 Comments

The original Facebook guy, remember him?I’ve been yammering on about trust as the key component to encouraging participation in online communities for a couple weeks.

Today, Facebook opened its walls to allow search engines to index anything you publish, meaning the layer of trust can be removed, and all your updates *could* be released into the wild.

The change has been rolled out to a select few beta testers, looks like those who already have public profiles. The ensuing uproar has brought a clarification from Facebook about future rollout plans, i.e. they say they’ll respect the privacy settings you have in place to keep your posts private.

I’m not really bothered by this change. People don’t pay enough attention to what is and isn’t indexed by search engines, e.g. Twitter updates are, unless you protect them, and let’s not forget that MySpace has always been indexed for all the world to see.

It is a departure for them. The Facebook experience has always been one of a controlled environment, where the symmetric follow model protected you from outsiders. Plus, they’ve always been the anti-MySpace, more private, less noisy.Sure, there are infamous examples where this false sense of security caused heaping doses of fail, but still, the overall experience is one of a protected atmosphere, within a circle of trust.

But now, with one setting change, your Fourth of July BBQ photos could go from being shared with a couple dozen people, to being shared with a billion around the World, give or take a couple hundred million.

That’s bound to cause some concern, but as long as Facebook makes it clear how to set privacy controls, the change itself isn’t a huge deal.

So, now the experiment begins. Facebook is used by (and implicitly trusted by) 250 million or so people.

How will this affect their perception of the network? Some bloggers are speculating that News Feed posts will be exposed via API to commercial third parties for pay, which would further erode the trust of users. From Marshall Kirkpatrick’s post on Read Write Web:

The worst case scenario is that Facebook will not open a free message search API for outside developers, instead it will make bulk access and analysis of all these public messages available only to commercial firms able to pay in order to harvest the data for marketing purposes. That seems pretty likely, unfortunately.

Facebook is, after all, a business, and the promise of marketing to social networks has been the elephant in the room for years. To date, it hasn’t been the advertising Holy Grail, but opening up personal network posts would help. I’m sure Twitter is pondering this too because all those mundane details you tell your networks help advertisers know more about you and more importantly, how to advertise to you.

Back to trust for the big finish.

What’s the answer here? Facebook and Twitter are businesses. They offer a free service that’s awesome, but at some point, they’re going to need viable business models and revenue streams to make their VCs happy.

So, do they lose our trust? Should we quit and find a free-as-in-beer service like Identi.ca? Would that even work, since these services have achieved a critical mass of our contacts?

I have no answers, only questions. I do expect that the loss of trust will hurt Facebook a bit, but it probably won’t matter in the long run.

Anyway, find the comments.


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2 Responses to “An Interesting Trust Experiment Begins”

  1. chet Says:

    A follow-on question would be, do users even care?

    We've discussed this before, I'm not so sure most people get the whole trust thing. We work in technology therefore it's pretty high on our list…but my parents (yes, they're on Facebook)?

    I do try to counsel friends and family about dialing the privacy controls up…

    I find it hard to wrap my mind around at times, the vastness of the 'tubes (as you would say), and I ponder this fairly often.

    Not really sure if I had a point or not…just not sure if everyone gets the “trust” issue. When you couch it in those terms, I have a hard time getting it.

  2. Jake Says:

    Good point. I'm not entirely sure how much typical users care, but I think this is a pretty easy change to describe, i.e. if you choose to share a post with “Everyone”, Google will eventually find it.

    Actually, Google will probably find it and rank it higher than your personal website of family pictures or your online resume.

    The other controls are a bit more difficult to explain.

    The problem is that even within a network of people you know, activity can leak out into other parts of Facebook and now, into search engines. Facebook (and other networks) give the illusion of a closed conversation among friends, which encourages sharing personal stuff, e.g. these pictures of us get wasted at the BBQ, status update that I'm on vacation in Maui, etc.

    We all know these risks, but average FB users do not.

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