Granularity is not the (only) solution

Facebook Privacy Options

One of my grandest pleasures in my career is helping younger people build their own careers. I’m certainly no business genius, but I’ve been around long enough that I’ve picked up a few tricks. Interestingly, many of the questions I get from these folks follow similar patterns and I can nearly count on the exchanges going a certain way. It’s almost as if our brains function in a certain “default” stream that doesn’t change until someone or some thing helps us realign and update our thinking.

We see this regularly in the context of our own relationships too. Married people, for instance, chuckle when our never-been-married friends say they’ll never do things we know to be nearly inevitable.

During the Facebook SXSW debacle, Mark Zuckerberg spent a great deal of time basically saying that privacy concerns can be largely solved by giving users granular control over their own data and profile.

Not quite, Mark.

I don’t like pulling the age card, but sadly in this case I can’t help it. Once Mark has lived through a bit more development (and perhaps even a few more projects besides Facebook) he’ll understand that simply giving tons of options to users doesn’t solve the core problem.

The platform needs to be inherently smart first, with granular control being the icing on top of the cake.

Anyone who’s been in Web development for any length of time knows that users are generally lazy. This isn’t a negative thing, it’s just the reality of having a world of data a few keystrokes away. The best tools for our daily use are those that deliver the exact right experience with minimal effort.

Look at the way Amazon has built up an incredibly rich, customized experience without every once asking me to “customize preferences”. Look at the way Google builds incredible search results without anyone every having to “submit” their site to the search engine. Look at how simplistic (to the users) the Digg thumbs up/down model is, yet how powerful the results are.

Imagine if I had to fill out a survey at Amazon when I signed up in order to help them customize the products I’m shown. Imagine if I had to tweak 45 settings in Google before they just delivered the right results to me. Imagine if I had to do the same before I could see the most popular stories. While it’s a natural flow of thought to assume that the answer to complaints about privacy is to give users more options over controlling their own personal privacy choices, this is flat wrong. Users want the Facebook platform to be inherently smarter so they can reduce, not increase their level of required interaction. Users want the Facebook team to be smarter about what the privacy issues are and design a system that understands that better than they do.

The simple fact is, users subconsciously think “Why do I have to think about this stuff, don’t you get paid to solve it so that I don’t have to think about it?”

We all started at the same place Mark seems to be today. He’ll learn his way out of this over time, he’s too smart not to. But when you’re setting the tone of an entire industry (and Facebook absolutely is), and creating a platform that people are starting businesses on top of, it’s scary to see this kind of inexperience brought so clearly to the forefront.

I was part of the last dot com burst and bust, and I think that at least some part of the bust came from the fact that the Web industry was made up largely of people with little career background or experience. We could get away with it, however, because we were all in the same position. We were all internet business newbies, no matter what our age. We all lacked experience and therefore the playing field was a bit more level.

The scariest part of watching Mark wasn’t that he’s learning on the job; we’re all learning on the job. It’s the fact that he has yet to really be challenged, he’s yet to fail, and he’s yet to have a true, major learning experience. I don’t care whether these challenges come from the Web industry or any other industry. I support Obama because I believe that the combination of extensive life experience with minimal political experience is the best of both worlds.

No, the scariest part is how early and green his thinking is. Anyone who’s been around the Web for even just a few years can recognize the places his thinking gets hung up, and that is the reason that it’s so easy to remind ourselves how young and inexperienced he really is. Then we realize that many of us are putting our careers, our company/client’s brands, our user trust in his hands… and that’s downright horrifying.