Big changes to Facebook make big headlines. But it's the small changes we really need to worry about.
For instance, Facebook is currently rolling out an attention-getting new look for user profiles. But over the past few months, the company has also unrolled a tiny change, so small as to seem completely unworthy of note.
With a small interface tweak, Facebook has made it harder to untag yourself from a photo. Not impossible – just harder. It's gone from a split-second one-click process to a three-dialogue box option-hunting hassle. It sounds innocuous enough, but "harder" is all it takes to sway the behaviour of millions in favour of Facebook's interests – at the expense of their own.
Facebook users are familiar with the drill: When users upload photos to the site, they're encouraged to identify the people in each picture, tagging each one. Facebook users can wake up the morning after a party to discover that their friends have uploaded and tagged dozens of photos of them. These photos automatically appear on their Facebook pages, without prior consent. This system has existed for years.
This is why many, if not most, Facebook users have become masters of untagging themselves, scrubbing their names from unflattering photos they didn't want to be associated with. This was fine, because Facebook made it easy.
Here's the rub: That system is no longer. After a small interface switchup, Facebook now only offers users a one-click way to hide the photo on their profile – but not to get rid of the tag itself. The photo will still be identified in the album of the person who posted it, should anyone see it there. The link will still go to your page. And most importantly, Facebook itself will still know that it's you in that picture.
It's still possible to fully untag yourself. But the process has been made artificially burdensome. You have to hunt down the page to find an option for reporting or untagging images. Clicking brings up a dialogue box with several options to review. Choosing the "untag" option brings up a second dialogue box. Choosing "untag" in that dialogue box brings up a third dialogue box that confirms the untagging. Instead of one click, that's four clicks, three boxes and two sets of option selections. Now, imagine repeating that across dozens of photos that might get posted after a night out. The process quickly becomes onerous.
Facebook likes it when people tag photos. It's good for business. The more internal links the site contains, the more people click, the more time people spend on the site, the more information is gathered about users, and the better advertising can be targeted, seen and sold. And let's be honest, to the viewer, it's useful when photos are tagged. It's engaging to put names to those unknown characters who lurk in the background, and to explore their profiles in turn. Tagging is good for everyone, except perhaps the people in those photos.
By implementing a change so administrative it seems too arcane to dwell on, Facebook is pressing its 800 million-odd users, uploading about 250 million photos a day, to leave untold numbers of tags in the system that they might sooner have deleted, were it not such a hassle. The tiniest details of design have a huge effect on the way people use technology. Users follow the path of least resistance.
In fact, Facebook is so eager for more tags that in other countries it has implemented a facial-recognition system that recognizes your friends' faces and does the work for you. Facebook says it's not planning to implement the system in Canada; the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario is among those who have expressed grave concerns about its privacy implications.
By making tagging easier than ever while simultaneously making untagging a pain, Facebook has again tilted the playing field in its own corporate interest.
The disinterested might ask: If you can still hide unseemly photos on your profile, do the persistent tags really matter? Yes. For one thing, they can be used as a back door into your account. A colleague recently found strangers leaving comments on photos she was sure she'd made fully private, only to find, buried deep in an options box, a light grey disclaimer reading, "Anyone tagged and their friends can also see this post." This was not an option that can be changed.
It should also be a concern that, from all the photos, events, tags, and comments, Facebook can piece together a remarkable picture of what you've done where, when and with whom. Don't think that law enforcement isn't profoundly interested in this stuff. If Facebook isn't sharing this information with police today, it might tomorrow: Laws change, and governments these days aren't much more interested in the idea of privacy than Facebook itself is. Among the new photo-reporting options, Facebook now allows you to flag photos containing "Illegal drug use." How handy for everyone.
Facebook continually wagers – and so far correctly – that users will let it massage their expectations of privacy downwards, and accept the tradeoff. After all, what's the option? Not to use Facebook, in this day and age?