The Twitterisation of Facebook

There’s a great movie about poker called Rounders, in which Matt Damon’s character says: “If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”

The Twitterisation of Facebook

This reminds me very much of another quote, usually attributed to a guy by the name of Andrew Lewis. He was responding in an online forum debate about changes made to the free social bookmarking site Digg when he stated: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

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A year earlier, in 2009, an Adobe blogger called John Dowdell had spoken in similar terms about the use of tracking beacons by Google, pointing out that “the business model is to sell your exquisitely qualified attention to advertisers”, adding: “The ‘open web’ is used as a massive profiling tool. You are the product. The process is opaque, closed, proprietary. You are the product.”

Why am I mentioning this now, when these quotes are several years old? Well, the same “you are the product” mantra is starting to be applied to Facebook, and we’d be well advised not to forget that fact now Facebook has become an integral part of everyday life. Whenever a new functionality tweak is added to Facebook – often one that’s missed or misunderstood by many people at the time of its announcement – my “potential privacy risk” radar starts to blip like crazy.

I’m talking particularly about the recent addition to Facebook of Twitteresque clickable hashtags. Now, if you place a # symbol before any word, it will be converted into a clickable hashtag – that is, a keyword that makes discovering other posts that relate to that particular subject much easier. Using the hashtag function exposes your posts to a far wider audience, since posts that would otherwise have been confined to your circle of friends can now be found by anyone who clicks on the hashtag.

This has caused concern among members of my social network, but on this occasion I don’t think there’s any need to worry about strangers reading your thoughts (assuming you have your privacy settings locked down tightly, of course).

Facebook hashtags will respect your privacy settings, meaning any of your posts that are configured to be shared only with friends will be handled accordingly. You can set this on a post-by-post basis, using the arrow dropdown underneath the edit box. Most of the things you post you’ll probably want to share with only your circle of friends, but if you want to go to a wider audience, select Public from the dropdown.

For more restricted visibility, I’d suggest trying the Custom option. This setting allows you to specify precisely which people and lists to share – or, more importantly, not to share – a post with. The truth of the matter is that public posts have always been visible to anyone using Facebook, and the search function has always been available to help discover them. All the new hashtags achieve is a one-click way to find posts on a particular subject that are already public. Does this Twitterisation of Facebook concern me on privacy grounds? Not at all. It changes nothing.

It does, however, make Facebook a little more informative and helpful. That said – just in case any Facebook developers happen to be reading PC Pro – something else that would definitely be more helpful is ending the practice of making on-the-fly sharing options sticky (so your choice remains in effect until you make a different one). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve changed my posting settings to “just me”, or a highly restricted custom group, for the purpose of a single post, only to discover that everything I posted afterwards was also seen by next to nobody.

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