New Facebook Features On the Way: Privacy Controls, Chat

Tonight or early Wednesday morning, Facebook’s 67 million active members will have new ways to control their privacy on the social network. They’re welcome additions for many people on Facebook who want more control over which friends (and others) see what kind of material and information on their Facebook profiles. The changes follow a number of privacy concerns that have flared up on the site since it opened up its membership to anyone, not just college students whose social life generally wasn’t quite so complicated.

For one, there’s a new privacy interface, which allows you anywhere on the site to control which pieces of information you want to share with whom: everyone on Facebook, all your friends, only some friends, friends of friends, customized groups of friends, or networks—or nobody but yourself if you want. Most useful, you will be able for the first time to exclude specific people from seeing the information. The photo here shows how it will work.

Also, when you choose which people you want to see, say, a new photo set—perhaps your immediate family or close friends—you can in the process create a specific group out of those contacts for use in future sharing. That’s part of a “friend list” launched quietly in December, but it helps make the new privacy settings more useful. And when you get a new friend request, you can click a drop-down menu and choose the particular friend list you want them on, or choose more than one for that person.

You can’t yet look at your list of friends and from there choose which of them can see what. Matt Cohler, Facebook’s VP of product management, said that might make things too complex at the outset, which could be true. But I suspect that people eventually will want an easy way to change what various friends can see, if only to correct mistakes in visibility you might make initially, or if, say, one of my friends who was a colleague starts working for a competitor and I no longer want to share quite so much with him.

Facebook also said it will offer online chat as a standard feature in a couple of weeks. At the outset, it won’t have all the features of AIM and other chat programs, and you won’t be able to use it with Meebo yet. But assuming it works as billed, it’s certainly likely to keep people on Facebook even longer than they already are. And not incidentally, it may well make some chat application providers a little unhappy. Shades of Microsoft.

Finally, in response to a question about the controversial Beacon program announced last fall, which published what people did on Facebook partner sites to their Facebook news feed, Cohler was frank about its shortcomings and about the privacy furor it created before it backed off a bit. (As was CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week.) “We just screwed it up,” he admitted. “It was just poor execution. We rushed it out the door—that was a mistake. (And) we framed it in the wrong way”—as an ad product, which he says it’s not. I’m not sure I buy that argument, but OK. At the same time, it seems clear that Facebook isn’t giving up on it.

You can find more details on semi-liveblogged posts on Facebook’s press gathering in Palo Alto by Caroline McCarthy and Dan Farber at, Mike Arrington at TechCrunch, and Justin Smith at Inside Facebook.

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