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Creepy is wrong

A lot of people are creeped out by Facebook right now — because folks are getting friend suggestions that are a little too familiar.

Here's what happened to my wife:

  • Facebook suggests she friends 3 of our neighbors.
  • She has never given our address on Facebook or connected to those neighbors in any way.
  • She has never given Facebook access to her contact lists or email accounts.

Her assumption:  Facebook was secretly scanning her Outlook and identifying people she received email from. Invasive, scary, and infuriating.

Mobs of other people are equally angry.  Here are a few posts: 1 2 3

But…it never actually happened. 

Those friends uploaded their contact lists, my wife was on it, so Facebook assumed they were friends.

Here's the problem:  Facebook did nothing technically wrong.  They didn't steal data or violate privacy. They actually did a great job of matching people who know each other.

But they did it too well, and it's freaking people out.  This leads to anger, fear — and legislation. And it's not the first time Facebook has walked into this mess by being insensitive to the perceptions of its users.

Engineers: Just because you can build something doesn't mean you should.

Executives:  It's not about whether something is allowable. It's about whether something is acceptable — Your users get to decide, not you.

(P.S. Facebook:  You could fix this with a little link next to the suggestions that explains how this works, and give people the option to opt-out. Information fixes fear. You'll make it worse if you bury it in the fine print; that will confirm suspicions that you have something to hide.)

Email to a friend:

Privacy: We won't save or reuse these emails.

Comments

  1. Nicholas E. Kinports July 2, 2009 at 8:40 am #

    Andy,
    Thanks for this – I had been wondering how this was happening for some time now.

  2. Gregory Y July 2, 2009 at 8:46 am #

    Andy,
    Excellent point. We are developing technological capabilities so much faster than knowledge and ethics for their use. @piplzchoice

  3. Roger Toennis July 2, 2009 at 8:51 am #

    People are “freaked out” by *this*, and they weren’t freaked out by the fact that our democratically elected government was wiretapping their calls illegally in the afternmath of 9/11?
    Humans are generally irrational.

  4. Maria Reyes-McDavis July 2, 2009 at 10:41 am #

    What amazes me most about this post, is that Facebook should know better after all the backlash they receive for every move they make. Information is power, especially when the choice is given to the user who is affected. Great, simple fix you’ve highlighted seems like a no brainer for me :-)

  5. Scott McAndrew July 2, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    This happened to my wife. She has a pretty stark profile, and a limited set of friends on Facebook, and one day Facebook started recommending people that it was difficult for her to discern how Facebook could recommend them because there wasn’t a clear connection. She did know the people, but often the suggestions were just far enough removed that it was eerie how Facebook could be making the suggestion. It did make her uncomfortable–she reluctantly started using Facebook, and was decidedly not a fan of the suggestions for just what you mention in the title of the article: it’s creepy.

  6. creepster July 2, 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    They probably suggested your neighbors from your IP address… Similar locations…

  7. randy July 2, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

    “Engineers: Just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should.”
    This is foolish. Ignorance on the part of the general public is no reason not to push the boundaries of technology.

  8. Andy Sernovitz July 2, 2009 at 1:30 pm #

    Randy –
    Classic engineer answer: Everyone else is stupid, so it’s OK for me to be rude.
    Andy

  9. MLDina July 2, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    If they actually stole geographical data I would completely agree, but other users volunteered their contact lists and the original user volunteered their general location info, email address, or whatever other personal information they were willing to. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If you give out generic contact info, there’s an expectation that people will use it for networking. Facebook was just connecting the dots.

  10. Andy Sernovitz July 2, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

    The point is that Facebook didn’t do anything wrong — they followed the rules, the engineering was impressive, and the program was effective.
    But it doesn’t matter. Being right doesn’t mean it’s a good business decision. Being technically right doesn’t make it a smart idea.
    Thousands of people are freaked out and unhappy. That’s always bad.
    Every business does things that seem like a good idea, but end up making people uncomfortable. Learn to take that feedback as a sign you’ve crossed the line, instead of defending the wrongness.

  11. Barry Wheeler July 2, 2009 at 2:01 pm #

    Good to know! I’m glad that I dumped facebook some time ago. Never did like their sense of privacy.

  12. RAY KELSEY July 2, 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    I DO NOT JOIN FACEBOOK BECAUSE OF FRIENDS OR NOT. NOT INTERESTED AT ALL IN FACEBOOKS TYPE OF PRIVACY POLICY.

  13. John : Site Doublers July 3, 2009 at 12:10 am #

    They need to add an extra step into their testing procedures.
    I guess they already test if a new feature actually works, and if it scales. They also need to test what real people feel about it in the real world.
    Maybe just release it for a few thousand people for 6 weeks.
    Then get in touch personally with those people and ask them how they feel. This could avoid the kind of fiascoes that Facebook stir up every few months.

  14. Casey July 3, 2009 at 2:25 am #

    This article from the Consumerist has a link at the end that allows you to tell Facebook to erase your “skipped” contacts – the ones it draws the creepy friend suggestions from. It’s a one-button operation if you’re logged in.
    http://consumerist.com/5301425/facebook-where-are-you-getting-these-crazy-friend-suggestions-from

  15. Jenn July 6, 2009 at 9:12 am #

    “Engineers: Just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should.
    Executives: It’s not about whether something is allowable. It’s about whether something is acceptable — Your users get to decide, not you.”
    This is great! Found your link through Twitter. I’m glad you shared this post because I was getting a bit creeped out by friend suggestions as well. Glad to know a bit of the background now.

  16. DY July 6, 2009 at 9:32 am #

    Sitting with Andy on this one, when he replies:
    “Classic engineer answer: Everyone else is stupid, so it’s OK for me to be rude.”
    and
    “Being right doesn’t mean it’s a good business decision. Being technically right doesn’t make it a smart idea.”
    How smart is it Mr/Ms. engineer to be “dead right?”

  17. Sam July 6, 2009 at 9:33 am #

    Maybe their not testing this stuff enough – who knows?
    Maybe they just need to explain it a bit more when the suggestions come through. Rather than presenting the suggestions as coming from Facebook, maybe it needs to be clearer that the suggestions are coming from data the person has submitted. Or they could, indeed, just not do it.
    From their point of view, it probably offers an effective way of building their user base. For all the people who get creeped out by this feature, there are probably lots of people who find it useful.
    It’s difficult to tell if this really is a problem without seeing proper data on this, or in-depth testing.

  18. MLDina July 6, 2009 at 10:16 am #

    Absolutely. It’s all about personal preference, too. There are certain people I’m happy to have contact me, and some I’d rather avoid. It was much easier to hide out before I got into such a searchable industry, too.