Relax: Facebook wants you to feel comfortable about sharing

Though it’s long been a magnet for privacy concerns, Facebook has a strong self-interest in making users feel comfortable about sharing on the social network. The company said Tuesday that it’s working on better ways to explain its privacy settings for users.

“Sometimes people share things and then they feel like it’s shared with more people than they want. This is not a great experience,” said Mike Nowak, one of two Facebook product manager who met with tech reporters to talk about the changes on Tuesday.

“When people have an unpleasant surprise like this, it’s bad for them and it’s bad for us,” he acknowledged, “because people feel less comfortable sharing over time and there’s less overall comfort in the system.”

To be clear, Nowak and engineering manager Raylene Yung weren’t there to talk about the business side of Facebook, which uses sophisticated algorithms to track users’ interests and likes, in order to show them targeted advertising.

That’s how Facebook makes its money, and it’s why the company wants to keep people happy about using the social network. Facebook says it keeps ad-tracking data confidential and doesn’t identify individual users to advertisers.

Instead, the two managers described the company’s efforts to make sure that Facebook only shows a user’s posts and updates to the audience of other users – whether it’s the general public, friends only, or some other subset – that the user intended.

Facebook’s system checks the privacy settings on such items more than 80 trillion items a day, in order to determine who sees what, according to Yung. The company also surveys users 4,000 times a day, in 27 languages, to see how they are using and reacting to different privacy settings, Nowak added.

While Facebook has been criticized in the past – more than once – for arbitrarily changing its policies, the new features discussed Tuesday are mostly aimed at helping users understand the privacy options that are already offered. Those settings can be confusing, though Facebook has made efforts to simplify and display them more prominently.

In one new change, for example, the company has redesigned some of the icons and labels that users see when they go to make a new post, so they’ll be more aware of the audience setting and their options to change it.

The company’s also introducing new explanations about how photos are re-shared, and a cartoon dragon figure (which has already been spotted in early tests) that asks users if they want to double-check their settings.

One change that does alter a longstanding policy is relatively minor: Users will now be able to hide old cover photos – the large photo that appears behind the profile photo on each user’s page – which until now have been public.

But Facebook is sticking to the policy that says anyone can see a user’s name, current profile photo and current cover photo. Some critics don’t like the fact that these photos can be found by anyone who searches for a user by name. But Yung cited Facebook’s interest in showing users by their real identity and said “those help you really express who you are and it helps you find the right people to connect with.”

(Screenshot of Facebook’s new privacy dinosaur; a spokesman says the character doesn’t have a name.)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (324 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.