Flexibility in Innovation, Consistency in Controls: The Difficulty in Setting User Defaults for Social Networking

by on June 4, 2010 · 0 comments

Companies often promote consistent and reliable customer experiences. KLM touts itself as “the reliable airline” while Michelin touts its dependability “because so much is riding on your tires.” And now we have Yahoo, who announced that it will be increasing the social networking functionality in Yahoo Mail. Yahoo has the ability to promote consistency in determining user defaults for sharing information.

But social networking is a product much different than most – it is participatory. Passengers can’t fly airplanes and drivers don’t design tire tread, but social networking users control what and with whom they share information.

So what happens when a social networking service changes functionality or adds new features? How does a company be consistent in carrying-over a user’s preference from the prior version to the new one? What assumptions should it make on user privacy preferences for new features?

These considerations matter whenever an online service tries to increase its social networking functionality. Last week, Facebook unveiled new privacy controls, and we blogged that it was a welcome response to clear-up confusion. In the coming weeks Yahoo will change how status updates work in Yahoo Mail. Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch article describes it well:

[C]urrently to see status updates for others in Yahoo Mail, you have to have a mutual follow, meaning both people have agreed to be “friends.” You can then see that user’s Yahoo status updates as well as updates on third party services that they have added to their Yahoo profile as well. In the new version there will no longer be a requirement for a mutual follow. So, like on Twitter, users can follow whomever they choose. This isn’t actually a dramatic change for Yahoo, since users can follow others in this way already on Yahoo Messenger.

Like Google and Facebook before it, Yahoo is adding features to make its service more “social.” And because of the scrutiny over the changes by Google and Facebook, Yahoo seems to be going out of its way to assure users that they can rely and depend on Yahoo. According to the Yahoo Corporate Blog:

Before Yahoo! Updates is expanded to Yahoo! Mail where many more people will see their Contacts’ activity, we want you to explore your Updates settings and make sure you know who can see what you’re publishing. Even if you are among the many Yahoo! users who haven’t ever generated an update, we want to encourage everyone to actively manage these settings. Because the majority of events listed within Updates are inherently public activities, our defaults are set to allow anyone to see them (that is, for people over 18; we have different defaults that are age-appropriate for people under 18 – learn more in our FAQ).

In one sense, Yahoo is trying to stay consistent: in Yahoo Messenger, user updates are public, so they’re going to make updates public in Mail too. But in another sense, Yahoo is making assumptions—that users want to have their updates be public. Hence the rationale for Yahoo’s explanation: Updates are inherently public activities, our defaults are set to allow anyone to see them.

As online services add features and functionality, they will be faced with decisions about setting defaults about what most users prefer. Google Buzz presumed that Gmail users would want to publicly reveal which people they emailed the most—but based on the wide range of user pushback, Google chose this default poorly.

In the case of Yahoo, it is trying to make it easy for users to control and opt-out of sharing status updates: “[Y]ou can easily limit who sees your Updates stream either by editing the controls for each specific activity…or by turning your Updates stream off entirely in one simple step.”

Yahoo and other online services will strive to seek a balance. They will want to respect previously expressed user preferences, while defaulting settings so that people see and are encouraged to use new features.

But if the threat of regulation—beckoned by the noisy call of privacy critics—becomes too great, companies will be afraid to take risks and introduce new service. Forcing online sites to perpetually maintain original settings prevents innovative business models and services (just ask Microsoft about how slavish consistency to decade-old software makes Windows innovation so difficult). Strict consistency is a brake on innovation.

We know that companies won’t always get the right balance. But online services need the freedom to experiment with new ways for publishing and sharing information.

As the social web matures, we’ll see more and more sites confronted with this balancing act. They’ll need to carryover preferences from old to new versions, and make assumptions on what information most users will or will not want to disclose. If sites get it wrong, some users will change their settings, while others will leave—ultimately, either is a better expression of user preferences than any law or regulation.

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