Facebook Announcement Aims To Calm Consumers and Woo Corporate Users [Update]

Last Updated Oct 8, 2010 9:42 AM EDT

The rumors were flying over the subject of today's Facebook announcement. Would it be a branded phone, redesign, IPO announcement, or something else?

The answer was none of the above. Instead, the company did something pretty smart. To avoid what happened to MySpace (NWS), Yahoo (YHOO), and so many other online services, Facebook expanded the control consumers have over their information. At the same time, the company created a new group function that also offers some interesting capabilities that would be useful for business collaboration.

Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have weathered heavy criticism over privacy issues and the question of what a company should be able to do with consumer data. The first new feature today was the ability for users to get a copy of all their information from Facebook and bring it to another service. The "download your information" option provides virtually everything from an account, including photos, videos, status posts, wall posts, and events, and puts it all into a compressed file that the user downloads

The psychology behind this decision is slick. The minute people know they can walk away from a product or service, they feel safer. This is one of the big issues with Web- and cloud-based companies. Once you commit to using something, what do you do it if closes shop or if you decide to use a competing service? The combination of safety and control will help keep customers.

A new apps dashboard lets users see all the Facebook applications they use and what permissions those apps have. A user can then change or revoke permissions. Apps have been one of the softer spots in Facebook's traditionally spongy privacy controls because the programs can have extended access to data without users necessarily knowing what they can obtain.

Last up was, to my eye, an extremely clever approach to privacy and personal connections. A new type of group facility will let someone start a group, after which members can invite additional people they deem appropriate. Rather than depend on friend lists, which Zuckerberg said only 5 percent of the users use at all, the new groups concept -- different from the current groups -- spreads maintenance around. In theory, no one person does everything by default. This is a similar concept to people adding tags to friends' photos. Furthermore, groups will have chat, wikis, email lists, documents, and shared space. Sounds like an easy way for many business groups to network and collaborate in an interface that likely as not will already be familiar. [Update: As my BNET colleague Ben Popper points out, Facebook's new groups have already led to spam. Note to Zuckerberg: letting people opt in is often a really smart choice.]

It's a smart set of features -- and, according to Zuckerberg, there will be more releases next month. So maybe you don't have to give up on that Facebook phone just yet.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.