Explicit interfaces for social media
The lastest Facebook flap has caused me to write more about privacy of late, and that will continue has we head into the June 15 conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy where I will be speaking on privacy implications of robots.
Social networks want nice easy user interfaces, and complex privacy panels are hard to negotiate by users who don't want to spend the time learning all the nuances of a system. People usually end up using the defaults.
One option that might improve things is to make data publication more explicit in the interface, and to let users choose, in an easy way, the level of exposure for a specific act.
Consider twitter. Instead of having a "Tweet" button, it should have a "Tweet to the world" button and a "Tweet to my followers" button. (Twitter wisely does not tweet when you hit Enter, as many people forget it is not the search box.) For people tweeting by SMS or other means, they could define a special character to put at the front of the tweet, like starting your tweet with a "%" to make it private (or public depending on your default.) Of course, your followers could still log and republish your private tweets, but they would at least not go into public archives. (Unless you've accepted a follower who does that, which is admittedly a problem with their design.)
This interface might seem complex but what's important is that it's clear. You know what you are doing. Here your choice makes sense to you and you are not squeezed into a set of defaults, ie. their choices.
Facebook has come close to this. There is a little lock icon next to the Share button, and it becomes a select box where you can set who you will share a posting with. It has a bit too much UI, but it's on the right track. A select box can make it smaller but it should say "With the world" when that is the default state, to make your action explicit for you. This should be extended to many other actions on Facebook, so that buttons which do things which will inform the world, or your friends, say it. "Share this photo with the world." "Tell all 430 friends your Strawberries are ripe." The use of the number is a good idea, to make it clear just how many people you are publishing to.
Of course "with the world" is somewhat bulky and "with all friends of your friends" is even bulkier. The UI can start this way, but the user should be able to to a page where they can switch to icons, once it is clear that they know what the icons mean. When facebook again tries to move our social graph out into partner sites, this approach should follow. Instead of "Like" it would be "Tell your friends you Like" and so on. Verbose, but worth being verbose about.
This only applies to social media, of course, where there is a choice. If you comment on this blog it doesn't yet say "post your comment to everybody" because there really isn't any other choice expected on public blogs. Private/public blog systems like LiveJournal have featured a means to make postings available only to friends for a long time.