Facebook Forces You to Describe Your Friendships (with 14 convenient labels)

Over the past few months, I’ve grown to be a fan of Facebook (here’s my public profile). I’m not sure why, but there seems to be quite a few of my professional colleagues on this social network, and I’ve come to use its interface and communication tools to organize part of my professional life and keep in touch with friends. It’s not an addiction, but it is both convenient and cool.

Given the variety of privacy concerns related to social networking sites, I’ve tried to be careful in what information I share and with whom, and if I had one major complaint with Facebook from a user perspective, it is that their privacy controls are much too complicated. (And, as a privacy advocate, I’m still not happy about how they handled the mini-feed fiasco).

Facebook expert Fred Stutzman has pointed out another disturbing new “feature” rolled out by those friendly Facebook folks: requiring users to select a description of how you know a newly-minted friend. Fred describes the problems with this so aptly, I’m going to allow him to speak for me as well:

This evening, I went to approve a friend request on Facebook, only to find that I was now forced to fill out the details of my friendship with this individual. Had we lived together or worked togther? Had we met randomly, or through Facebook? Apparently, no longer do we have the option of keeping this information to ourselves – all of the details of our friendships must now be public.

…this top-down mandate is going to leave a lot of users unhappy; people like having the ability to choose how much information they make public. Facebook may not know this, but forcing people to publicly describe friendships is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable – they like having the flexibility to keep parts of their life private. Furthermore, it’s essentially silly to boil down something as complicated as all of your friendships into 12 pithy categories. What about the people you grew up with? Where’s the “met them at age 5 on my block” category?

Facebook has likely instituted this change for two reasons. The first is part of the overall “radical transparency” movement espoused by the techno-libertarian leadership of the company. They feel that all information should be public, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why worry, etc.

…Of course, instituting changes to control behavior at one edge of the ecosystem will affect other parts, and the longtime users are the ones who will be most displaced by this change. And it is a significant change – “friendship” is at the core of Facebook, and to now have to fit every friendship into Facebook thin lens will make many uncomfortable. Just as with the newsfeeds, in which the nature of friendship was instantly changed, now every friendship must make the uncomfortable dance of description. Its really too bad – this feels like such a Friendster moment.

UPDATE: Comments on Fred’s blog indicate this was merely a “bug” that has been fixed. Good. Of course, this remains a lesson on the problems of similar rigidity in designing technologies/interfaces to substitute the malleability of social life…

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