What the new Facebook changes mean

7 May 2010

In the last month, Facebook’s made several main changes to how the site works in its goal to create “a Web where the default is social.” The changes have upset users and increased fears of diminishing privacy. Here’s what you know about the changes and what it means for you:

Connections and community pages

The change everyone seems to be noticing first are the connections that are revamping people’s profile sections. Facebook gives you two options: either link the information you’ve already listed for current city, hometown, education, work and interests, or leave those sections blank. If you chose to link, those interests get connected with pages to indicate that you “like” it.

This linking was accompanied with the introduction of community pages. Community pages are based around topics and include Wikipedia information on the topic where available, in addition to what’s being said by your friends and by all Facebook users. They’re similar to the previous pages that people and businesses could create, which have stayed the same. (Check out The Daily Tar Heel’s official page and community page for an example of the differences between the two types of pages). The major difference between an official and community page is that community pages won’t generate updates in your News Feed.

What the change means: Any page you connect to is by default public to all users, regardless of any previous privacy settings you have established. You can restrict whether the pages show up in your profile, but anyone who visits or is connected to the page themselves can see that you have “liked” the page. In response to this, many users have chosen to leave their profile interests blank. You can use the “Bio” section of your profile to describe yourself in free-form instead.

Why people are concerned: Facebook isn’t giving users much of a choice. You either opt in and accept that your connections will be universally public, or you opt out, leaving your profile blank.

More on the change: Facebook’s Help Center FAQ on community pages and profile connections

Instant personalization and social plugins

You’ve probably seen the effect of these changes when browsing almost any major website (Facebook says 50,000 have already been installed). Both instant personalization and social plugins are designed to extend the Facebook experience and make it easier to connect interests across a variety of programs.

Social plugins come in the form of “like” buttons, feeds that show what your friends are up to and ways to comment directly to your Facebook Wall, all from a third-party website. You must be logged in to see the recommendations, and you’ll be prompted to log-in if you’re not. With Facebook’s instant personalization program, any visits to Microsoft Docs.com, Pandora or Yelp are personalized based on your public Facebook information (you can opt out by updating your privacy settings on Facebook).

What the change means: It’s easier to share what you’re reading and looking at with your Facebook friends, and it’s easier to get recommendations from your friends by seeing what they’re up to as well.

Why people are concerned: None of your profile information or data is shared with the third-party sites, but Facebook is able to see what websites you’re visiting and what articles you’re reading. Like with connections, any privacy settings you establish only apply to your Facebook profile. So clicking a “like” or “recommend” button on a website is public to anyone.

More on the change: Facebook’s FAQ on personalized web tools

Note: This post was originally written for Daily Tar Heel readers.

Technician editors: Stop whining, start doing

3 May 2010

The latest in the months-long saga at N.C. State University’s student paper, the Technician, is a harsh editorial written by student editors calling out the school’s student media board:

Technician hasn’t faltered and fallen due to a lack of effort or passion from the students who run it, but because the umbrella which was supposed to provide it with a gentle hand has become Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fabled albatross, dragging it down, tearing students away and weakening the staff.

The editorial also seeks signatures on a petition to replace the current advising staff.

I’ve been closely following the plight of the Technician ever since hearing that former Editor Ty Johnson had been forced to step down. I truly sympathize with the staff’s requests for more editorial freedom. I know I am among the more fortunate student journalists to be able to work for a student paper that is entirely financially and editorially independent from the University, and I appreciate the difference that makes in our ability to report on campus.

But while I sympathize 100 percent with the Technician staff’s desire for independence, I’m still waiting for the staff to step up and lead the paper in the direction they say they want it to see it go. And so far, I haven’t seen too much of that (with the exception of this thoughtful set of recommendations from the committee led by former Editor Saja Hindi). If you really want change, don’t wait for it to come from the University or the student media board. Don’t just declare an act of sedition. Declare revolution.

Instead of editorializing about how you want more control, show what you’d do with it. Stop asking for permission and ask for forgiveness when you’re finished. Put out the kind of paper and website you think the Technician should, and don’t worry about what the advisers will say. What I’d emphasize:

  • Narrow the focus to what you can do best. Think about what your readers are interested in, and stop doing things just because that’s-the-way-its-always-been-done. I’d focus on breaking news, student groups,sports and commentary. Make sure there’s a great campus calendar online.
  • Social media. There’s not any interaction on the Technician’s Facebook page or Twitter account. Fix that. Appoint someone in charge of those accounts and reaching out to readers. Try Flickr and asking readers to submit photos. Answer reader questions on Formspring. Try Tumblr. Most importantly, make it a two-way conversation between staff and readers.
  • Link, link, link. Point your readers to where they can find more information. Better still, use Publish2 to curate links to news elsewhere.
  • Seek student bloggers to fill in what you can’t cover. UNC has a rich community of student and community bloggers, and I’m sure the same is true of N.C. State. Make it easy for them to submit guest posts, and create incentives for doing so.
  • Ditch College Publisher. Build a WordPress site over the summer. Check out the Edit Flow workflow fromCoPress to help manage multiple users. Come back in the fall and go web-first. Do your writing and editing in the CMS. Publish as soon as possible.

And if all else fails, quit the Technician. For a $10 domain name, a cheap web hosting plan and a free WordPress theme, a group of students could easily band together to start their own online-only news organization with just the money they’d spend on beer in one night. Look at Onward State and NYU Local for inspiration. Breaking off and forming an independent online-only publication wouldn’t be easy, but it is the ultimate way to gain the editorial freedom the staff seeks.