Facebook should take a page from Livejournal’s book on privacy settings

Apr 16, 2009 · 3 comments

in social media

The first blog platform I used was Livejournal, back in 1999. One of the greatest benefits of LJ over Blogspot at that time was the rich community aspect: I loved how they handled “friending” and content permission. A decade later as I struggle with Facebook privacy settings, I find myself longing for the good old days – Livejournal really did get it right.

lj logoA Livejournal is a blog: people write text entries. You can “friend” another livejournal user, which means their entries are added to your friends’ list (or “flist” as it was quickly shortened to be). This was long before I was familiar with the notion of RSS: it was just a chronological listing of changes on the livejournals of my friends. Rather than having to go to each individual blog to see if there had been updates, I had my own personal view. These friends’ lists were also public: I could view the friends of a friend; I could more easily find more journals to read and more people with whom to connect.

When I added someone as a friend, that gave them the right to view entries I posted that were “friends-only”. The privacy settings were on a per-post basis: public, private or friends-only. Friending wasn’t always mutual: you could add someone as a friend to see their updates on your friends list and to give them permission to view your friends entries, but they did not actually have to friend you back to see those entries.

LJ friend filterEventually LJ allowed people to create “friend filters”: I could create a filter that included or excluded certain friends. For some time I was dating one of my livejournal “friends”, and I could post details about a birthday surprise (or argument…) without them knowing the details. Alternatively, if I was posting something overly technical or geeky, I could make it viewable only to my tech friends for whom it was relevant. Even on my personal journal, I was fairly careful about not wanting to overwhelm my readers: I wanted to offer them a targeted experience so as not to lose them. (For those who follow me on twitter: yes, I’ve always been high volume!)

Recently I tried to make some changes to my Facebook privacy settings, and I modeled it after my notion of privacy from livejournal. I set up a “close friends” group (the only people I allow to access my address or phone number), and a “professional” group – my thought is that many of my old sorority sisters may not care about my opinions on OAuth or OpenID.

Unfortunately, Facebook settings are not on a “per-post” basis: I can set the privacy settings for ALL my status updates, but not specific ones. Either the Pi Phi Alumnae see all my status updates, or none: I can’t change it relative to the content itself.

facebook profile privacy settings

I understand that managing privacy on a per-status-update basis is seemingly overly complicated, but it’s not insurmountable. Twitter allows us to send direct messages using a single letter command: the same model could work for Facebook updates. A default setting could exist, with an option to override as necessary.

My main challenge was in the idea of “opt-in” or “opt-out”. My friend Meredith’s husband, Dave Gordon, is a triathlete and a computer scientist. He’s a close friend and someone I’d be able to ‘talk tech’ with. When I set up my “professional” group, it could be used either to allow them to see certain (geeky) content, or it could be used to block them from other (less professional) content. Indeed, one of the Facebook privacy options is to block a group from updates. But should I decide to use my “professional” group to limit access, Dave would be blocked. I really don’t mind if my friend Dave knows that “A Lot Like Love” is on of my favorite movies. At least how I envisioned them, these groups need not be mutually exclusive.

What made Livejournal permissions work better than those of Facebook?

  1. Filters were applied on a per-post basis. The content was directly related to who should have access.
  2. It was always about “permission to view” – a group was created to give permissions, not to remove them.
  3. Members are included or excluded from a list, and then a specific list is applied to content. Facebook allows an extra level of variation, where members are included or excluded, and then lists can be either additive or subtractive. This is an added level of complexity that takes some thinking about! (I confused myself just writing that)
  4. New friends were not added to a list: they had basic permissions and needed to have extra permissions given to them as appropriate. With Facebook, if I have a group that is excluded from seeing information and I gain a new friend, are they excluded or included from seeing that information by default? I have no idea…

Facebook has done an amazing job at giving users the ability to control who sees different aspects of their profile and online behavior. Unfortunately I don’t see their privacy controls nearly as straightforward as those I had years ago when all I was determining was with whom I wanted to share my myriad of results from personality quizzes. If Facebook indeed will grow into the primary source for people to connect online, it will have to ensure that such settings help, rather than hinder, online communication and engagement.

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