Is Facebook Wants to Get to Heaven, It Needs to Get Down to Earth First

It's poignant, actually. At the closing of the keynote he delivered at Facebook's F8 developer conference last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg portrayed what the company was doing in porting the Facebook experience out to the broader Web -- also known as the Open Graph -- as the route to "heaven." He told attendees:
When you go to heaven, all of your friends are there and everything is just the way you want it to be. So, together, let's make a world that's that good.
(Yes, he really meant it.)

Since that time, however, he's found himself back in a not-so-nice, but familiar, place: privacy hell. Even as 50,000 sites have added its social plugins -- which allow logged on Facebook users to see some of their friends' activity on those same sites -- Facebook has found itself once again in the cross-hairs over privacy issues. It's a meme -- like those Hitler "Downfall" parodies -- that just keeps repeating itself, going at least as far back as 2007's Beacon, the advertising program which exposed a little too much of people's private information and was eventually scrapped. And it's got to stop.

Here's how, but it's a toughie: The "heaven" quote notwithstanding, Zuckerberg & Co. need to come back down to the earth that most of us inhabit, a place where Facebook's 400 million-and-counting members don't have nearly the technical expertise that they do, and nowhere near the trust in the benefits of technology that Facebook execs -- and most of Silicon Valley -- do.

Not that there aren't some amazing things about these new tools, but most of us got on Facebook because we wanted to see what the high school quarterback was up to, or how many of our friends were going to the college reunion. Not because we wanted to expend any mental space on whether saying that we "Like" something ("Like-ing" replaced Facebook's "Become a Fan" feature as of last week) would make it to people we didn't want to see it.

Most of us are technological simpletons who need things to be explained, well, simply. But, part of the reason Facebook is finding itself in hot water once again is because it doesn't know how to be down-to-earth.

The big thing that seems to have gotten the privacy police up in arms this time around is what Facebook describes as a "small pilot" program involving music site Pandora, consumer review site Yelp and Docs.com, a social version of Microsoft Office that aims to compete with Google Docs. With those three sites, Facebook is sharing information from users as the default, but the average passersby might be confused. As I said in a post elsewhere yesterday, in the keynote, as he walks the audience through Docs.com, Zuckerberg uses the word "public." He muses about what it might be like if a few "trusted" sites "already knew the public information about all of their users." Granted, he was talking to the developer audience, but most of us -- maybe even a developer or three -- would think he meant information in the public domain. No. Upon further examination, he meant "public" on Facebook, which means data that wasn't being shared with a broader audience -- until now, if you're visiting Docs.com, Pandora or Yelp. And, per usual, the best remedy if you don't want to do this is follow one of the many tutorials about how to shut this level of personalization down, tutorials that are usually provided much more quickly, and in copious detail, by sites other than Facebook. (This subject was finally dealt with by Facebook on its blog five days after the Open Graph launched, in a Q&A-style post, where how to shut the feature down is question number 11 -- a mere 1,500 words into the post.) That said, in the big scheme of things, sharing data with three third-party sites out of millions isn't that big a deal. Again, though, because of Facebook's inability to be clear about what it's doing, confusion reigns. Four Democratic senators wrote to Facebook this week expressing concern about the third-party data sharing, but I'm not entirely sure they're actually clear on exactly what Facebook is up to -- some of which is relatively benign. The senators' letter says:

The recent changes by Facebook fundamentally alter the relationship between users and the social networking site. Previously, users had the ability to determine what information they wished to share publicly and what information they wanted to keep private.
Well, that's not precisely true. On Pandora, Yelp and Docs.com, that may indeed be an issue. But on the tens of thousands of sites that added social plugins to their sites -- essentially, a little Facebook box or a "Like" button to their interface -- no data flows back to that third-party site. The real estate is entirely controlled by Facebook, even if appearances indicate otherwise. But it's appearances that count. As a consumer -- or a Luddite senator -- I would probably assume that the third-party site had gotten hold of my data.

Confused? Exactly! Heaven needs to be a simpler place.

Previous coverage of Facebook's Open Graph at BNET Media: