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How Facebook is Changing and Why You Should Pay Attention

This past week Facebook announced some changes that have been inciting the ire of the interwebs. At the company’s third annual f8 developer conference, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a major new revision of the Facebook Platform that will make sharing information around the web easier, even information that you might not be aware you’re sharing.

Two major kinds of changes have been made to the platform. The first is a new set of social APIs that any website can use to connect to the Open Graph. These APIs will enable websites to share and collect information via “Like” buttons similar to the ones that appear on the Facebook website today. The information will then be displayed to users in the Activity Feed and on other websites through Recommendation widgets. The information collected on one website will not be exclusive to it, it will be made available to all sites in the Facebook ecosystem. This is one of the points that is triggering the most privacy concerns amongst users.

The feature that is probably causing the loudest outcry is Instant Personalization, which is currently being implemented by Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft’s new Docs.com service. Internet Personalization is a sort of the evolution of the Facebook Connect platform in that it lets you log in to websites using your facebook profile. The main difference is that from now on as long as you are logged into facebook you will not be prompted to log into websites that use Instant Personalization. As soon as you navigate to Pandora, even the first time, there will be a radio station built for you based on the things you liked on Facebook and across the web. The moment you arrive at Yelp the front page will change to reflect where you are and the places your Facebook friends like. The first time you arrive at a website with this feature enabled a blue bar appears across the top to let you know and allows you the opportunity to log out immediately. Still, for some this if going a little bit too far.

People’s concerns are understandable and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s very public and controversial opinions about privacy are doing very little to assuage them. However, I think that if we learn to live in this new social web we can embrace the benefits that it will bring while minimizing the downside. The first step towards this goal is to become acutely aware that being on the web today is no more private than being out on the street. If I don’t want people to know I’m going somewhere, I will either avoid the place altogether or make sure that I leave no trace. Likewise on the web, if I don’t want people to know that I’m checking out jeans at Levis.com then I shouldn’t hit the “like” button next to that pair that I really want. The entire purpose of the button is to let others know what we are doing.

The second step and by far the more important one is to delve regularly into the Privacy Settings page and check to see that I am sharing only what I want to be sharing. They say that ignorance is bliss but if you aren’t diligent about your privacy settings you have no right to complain that you’re data is being shared without your permission. Technically, you have allowed Facebook to share your data. Is it wrong for them to set the default to sharing? Sure. But know you know better and now you can do something about it. So next time you’re on Facebook take a look at the top right corner of your browser and mozy on over to those Privacy settings. The Part that says “Applications and Websites” allows you to customize what is being shared and if you want to opt out of Instant Personalization, make sure to uncheck that dialog shown in the last screenshot.

With this new platform Facebook is moving the social web beyond the bounds of its own domain and making the things we do reverberate around the web. The music we like on Facebook is now the music we like in Pandora. The restaurants we like on Yelp are now the restaurants we like on Facebook. Our Facebook friends are now our Levis.com friends, our NHL.com friends and our IMDB friends. And all of those are good things. Should Facebook have the power of curating this massive amount of social information? This is a different discussion to be adressed at another time. Should we embrace the benefits that the expansion of the social web will bring to our lives? Should we be more careful about what we share and who we share it with in this new social web? Definitely.

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