Finally, Facebook is giving you more control over your privacy. Starting tonight, you’ll be able choose to create lists of friends to share information with, such as photos, rather than having to share with all of your friends. Also, Facebook Chat is on its way, but it’s not launching for another few weeks. More on that below.
The new privacy features are built around the concept of the friends list that Facebook began testing last December, where you can manually sort friends into lists that you define. Now, you’ll be able to use these lists to decide who gets to see what about you. A list can be totally private, so you can do things like upload photos and share them with your “college friends” without letting any other Facebook friends get access.
The company says users have been asking for these features as the site continues to expand across demographics and countries and users’ friends become increasingly diverse. I certainly need these features, from what I saw of them.
You can place any friend into any list of friends that you create. Maybe you’d create separate lists for “co-workers,” “family,” “college friends,” etc. These lists won’t be visible to your Facebook friends themselves. Based on the privacy level you set, each list may or may not be able to see information about you, like your IM screenname (for AIM and other non-Facebook IM services), your mobile phone number, your landline, your current address, your web site, and your email addresses.
These lists are integrated into features across the site. When you send or receive a friend request, you’ll also be able to categorize your invited friend within your lists, so it’s clear to you that you’re inviting a coworker who won’t have access to your photos for “college friends.” When you add an application, you designate what level of privacy you want for it — so maybe only your family sees it on your profile page.
Other features will change slightly as a result of these new lists. Facebook’s self-described “social mapping” feature, where you can mark how you know somebody (from college, from work, etc.), will still exist as a link after you confirm somebody as a friend. Friends you have already put into the limited profile setting that Facebook already offers will now be in their own list of “limited profile friends” that you can manage.
Facebook showed a group of reporters a preview of these features this morning at one of its downtown Palo Alto offices. I was there and saw the demo but haven’t had the chance to play with the new features yet myself. I’m not sure how obvious the features will be to users — especially to new users, who don’t have hundreds of friends they’re dying to manage. The company says that the initial version of its friends lists didn’t get much traction with users, because the feature was still being iterated on, and it purposefully wasn’t made obvious to users. But it says it’s been testing the features with beta groups, so presumably the changes will go over well when they’re put in place tonight.
Facebook Chat is also coming
Facebook Chat, which has been rumored for a little while, is coming within the next several weeks. It will turn your Facebook profile into a Facebook IM identity that you can use to chat with people within Facebook. A box in the bottom right-hand corner of the Facebook page shows you which friends are online. Click on it, and you get a window where you can start chatting and that you can also popout completely from the site.
From the chat window interface, you can choose to go offline. The online/offline status carries with you across browser sessions. You’ll eventually also be able to make a list so only people you want to chat with can see you, per the new list-creation feature above.
IM is a potentially major new way for Facebook to bring people back to its own site, and maybe it’s a way for people to connect through Facebook on other sites. “All of the ways we can extend out that information are important to us,” long-time executive and newly-named vice president of product management Mark Cohler says. “IM has been a pretty big project from a scalability and infrastructure point of view,” which explains why Facebook built its IM service from the ground up, and why right now it’s only available within Facebook.
The company is still considering how to integrate Facebook with other IM services and web sites. It’s looking at offering a chat API for third-party developers, possibly integrating with IM protocol Jabbr — and Jabbr clients — so maybe a desktop IM application like Adium could pull in information about your Facebook friends.
There are also no group chats available at this time, but Facebook is letting you chat with an unlimited number of individual friends at once. The chat archives go back 90 days — but the duration of your chat history is also something that hasn’t been finalized. You’ll be able to clear your own chat history but not your friends’ chat history.
Conclusion: Facebook is growing up
Facebook friends aren’t just college classmates. The company’s user base has greatly expanded — and changed — in the last few years. Many people who started using it in college are now using it at work, with friends from high school and family members. More significantly, two-thirds of Facebook’s 65 million monthly active users are now outside the US. Just 18 months ago, 90 percent of users its users were within the US. The vast majority of users in other countries aren’t students. These privacy features are in part designed to let people use Facebook how they want, in any context.
The company has previously kept a relatively tight lid on what it’s up to — usually leaks are the only way that people know about its plans before it launches a new feature. But the company has been making a point of reaching out to users lately. For example, it’s letting users look at and comment on its planned changes to its profile page. It also admits that in some past cases, it could have done a better job of explaining what the changes were when they happend. Cohler says that calling Beacon an advertising product was a mistake, because it’s really a user product, not part of its advertising sales group.
The company’s new approach to openness about its activities is a great sign. Making itself so available to the press is especially great.
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