When it comes to Facebook users and their messages, almost nobody knows who can see or share their posts on social networks. And that's a problem that must be fixed, says Mike Elgan.
The sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who's name is Randi Zuckerberg, posted a private photo this week of some of her family members, including brother Mark, in a kitchen goofing around with Facebook's new Poke app.
A friend of another Zuckerberg sister saw that post on her Facebook News Feed, thought it was charming and re-posted it publicly on Twitter.
Randi Zuckerberg was upset by the re-share, so she lectured the world on Twitter about "digital etiquette." She Tweeted:
"Always ask permission before posting a friend's photo publicly. It's not about privacy settings, it's about human decency."
Randi Zuckerberg is totally wrong. It's all about the settings and it has nothing to do with "decency."
The problem: Nobody knew what was happening with the communication.
Randi Zuckerberg, a former senior executive at Facebook, believed her private Facebook post was viewable only to "friends," when in fact it was visible to friends of friends.
Randi Zuckerberg's other sister didn't know that by simply friending someone on Facebook she was making her sister's personal posts visible to those friends.
And the friend who shared the post on Twitter didn't know that Randi Zuckerberg's photo was meant to be private. She thought it was public.
Even Zuckerberg family and friends don't know what's happening with their own Facebook messages.
Why? Because of the settings, of course -- not because of "decency."
This is the situation for all Facebook users and all messages. Almost nobody knows who can see or share their posts on social networks.
Instead of lecturing the world, Randi Zuckerberg should instead try lecturing her little brother, Mark. (And while she's lecturing him, she should also give him the "decency" lecture -- about copying Snapchat in the creation of Poke. It's about decency.)
Why Facebook should be more like Poke
When Randi Zuckerberg posted her photo, it should have been clear to her exactly who would gain access to the message. And if she marked it as private and viewable only by a specific group of people, Facebook should have done a better job of both locking it down to some degree and providing obvious signals that it should not be shared.
Instead of requiring every single recipient of every single post to check the light-colored fine print that shows who the sender addressed it to, private posts on social networks should be unsharable on the network and the pictures should be undownloadable, just like Flickr photos are when the user selects certain rights options.
Of course, any recipient can take a screen shot. But when a screenshot is taken of a private photo, the sender of that photo should be notified of the fact.
In short, regular social networking posts should work like Poke.
In Poke, users always know exactly who they're sharing their text, pictures or video with. Pictures can't be saved. When screenshots are taken the sender is notified. All messages have an expiration date.
Poke lets you send messages that self-destruct one, three, five or 10 seconds after the recipient opens it -- the sender chooses which.
Regular posts on Facebook, however, last forever -- or, until the unlikely event that the user deletes his or her user account.
These are the two extremes of time-control offered to users on just about every service: 10 seconds, max -- or eternity. But why?
Why social post need expiration dates
Why are regular, permanent posts one thing and Poke is another? Why not simply provide good, Poke-like information about who's getting all Facebook posts? And why not give the option to set expiration dates for all Facebook posts - one, three, five or 10 seconds, one day, one month, one year, 10 years -- just let the user pick any expiration date.
Sure, expiration-date messaging exists. There are already services that will erase your messages after a user-determined amount of time.
But hardly anybody uses these. They're an obscure category of messaging, and feel somewhat shady to use, like you're trying to hide something.
What we really need is knowledge and control built right into social networks.
Until just a few years ago, communication was temporary. In order for humans to grow, change and move on with their lives, people need to forget the past. Forgetting is an under-appreciated requirement for social cohesion and personal progress.
As our communication services are currently structured, the Internet never forgets anything. A generation is entering the workforce and finding that pictures posted of their high school antics may cost them a job.
Bosses, HR departments, detectives, divorce lawyers, creditors, trolls and malicious people of every description can find out everything you've ever posted about everything -- and everything others have posted about you -- and use it against you in unpredictable ways.
As we increasingly post every detail of our lives online, it's time to step back and ask if forever is a good default for storing messages and making them available to the public.
Sure, we can store things forever. But just because we can doesn't mean we should.
We all need to re-think our approach to social messaging, and decide whether every word, picture and video we ever post should be available to everyone until the end of time.
People involved in creating and running social networks, such as the Zuckerbergs, need to stop blaming users and start providing us with knowledge about -- and control over -- the messages they send.
It's not about decency. It's about settings. And we need better ones.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.
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