Network privacy settings on Facebook: I wouldn’t consider a country a close-knit community

One of the reasons for the runaway success of Facebook compared to blogging is imho the (perceived) privacy users enjoy. Detailed profile data is only visible to confirmed friends and members of the same “network”. Facebook networks (schools, companies and regional networks) are supposed to be mere representations of their equivalents in meatspace: the idea is that you can check out the faces you encounter at campus, in the high-school hallway or in the company canteen.

[Update December 2, 2009]
At last, Facebook finally decided to ditch the networks feature as a whole. See today’s announcement in Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post.

Since you give up privacy to people with whom you share the same physical space in real life anyway, the default option of having your profile visible to members of the same network seems logical. This however goes awfully wrong with regional networks – maybe even more so with the non-US regional networks where they lumped together entire countries or parts of the world where Facebook membership is still scarce.

Regional networks and privacy settings

Joining your regional network is the default step after filling out your location:


Joining a regional network is also a natural thing to do: as soon as people join a global community, the first thing they long for is affirming their local identity. So joining a regional network is for most people just a statement about themselves, just like joining one or more of the gazillion groups on Facebook, whose purpose is nothing but expressing an opinion or idea in the group title.

Facebook however takes its mission of “modeling the social graph” seriously, and joining a network isn’t just a light-hearted expression of a passing emotion: not only is it made hard to switch regional networks…


… joining a network has drastic consequences: it makes your profile, and the applications your install, by default viewable to all of your networks, including your regional network:


screenshot-van-network-belgium In countries like Sweden and Norway (resp. 1 in 9 and 1 in 5 on Facebook!) where the entire 15-35 demographic is on Facebook, joining the “regional network” amounts to making your profile public… Two weeks ago, I spent some time browsing through profiles of members of the network “Belgium” (127.000 members back then, 148.000 at the time of writing) and I am pretty sure a lot of the profile information was definitely not meant for total strangers to see.

What to do?

If you take Facebook seriously (i.e. really consider it a safe environment to communicate and connect with people you care about), you might do the following:

  • set profile and (most of your) applications‘ visibility to “friends only” or just allow networks you really have an idea who the members are
  • be extra thoughtful with applications where you interact with other people: do you think they want their comments, postings, preferences to be visible via your profile/newsfeed?
  • determine for yourself what your “boundary of trust” will be and refuse friend requests from people who don’t fall within these lines
  • ask yourself whether you want to be found on Facebook by people searching your name (because you might lack the courage to refuse them)
  • weed out decaying relationships systematically

Don’t think you have the guts and/or discipline to stick to those rules? Don’t worry, most people haven’t (if any). Which is the reason why quite a few smart people think Facebook, like its predecessors, is doomed to fail its grand ambition.

So here’s another approach:

  • determine for yourself what your “public membrane” is – you should feel comfortable with all information outside the membrane potentially being known to everyone (including parents, colleagues and neighbours) – it doesn’t mean you want them to know, it means you accept the risk of them getting to know
  • if you have a weblog, you already have defined that membrane for yourself…
  • as long as you play outside the membrane, go and lead a carelessly info-promiscuous Facebook (and other social network) life

(Inspired by a conversation with Clo, and this one with Peter Vandenabeele. You might want to post this to Facebook?)

6 Responses to “Network privacy settings on Facebook: I wouldn’t consider a country a close-knit community”

  1. Smetty Says:

    My profile and most of the applications are “friends only” now. Thx for blogging this.

  2. Pascal Says:

    By clicking through on search queries in my referers, I came across this Sophos press release on Facebook network privacy settings from October:

    IT security and control firm Sophos is urging Facebook to improve its default privacy settings following new research that revealed members are unwittingly exposing their personal details on a mass scale to millions of strangers, putting themselves at risk of identity theft.

    In fact I had bookmarked an earlier report in August and listened to the accompanying podcast (mp3) where the network privacy issue was mentioned, but it never struck me what the implication for us (Europeans/Belgians) was until I started playing with Facebook myself some weeks ago…

    I guess there must be a business benefit in opening profiles to network members by default since nothing has changed since…

  3. WIm J Says:

    Yo Pascal, thanks for the info. As a consequence, I started screening all privacy options, and I have closed quite some open gateways, like external websites sending stories to my profile. I mean, what the ?!


  4. Aantal Facebook gebruikers in België | Weblog Pascal Van Hecke Says:

    […] maar je hoeft dat niet te doen.  Meer nog, het is misschien onverstandig omdat dan meteen al je streek of landgenoten meelezen op je profiel en dat is misschien niet wat je wil… […]

  5. Albert Says:

    I am having a problem with this issue.

    I have setup a network, and some people on the network, a private one. Some people in the network do not want other members of the network to be able to see their friends. I had recommended that they change their Setting->Privacy Setting->Profile->Friends to friends only, not network and friends. but this doesn’t work. For example, I’ve set everything as Friends Only, but other members of the group can see all my friends.

    Any ideas?

  6. Pascal Says:


    my compatriot Denis Balencourt put a presentation on Slideshare how to deal with this problem. The presentation explains how to put (part of) your Facebook connections into a group, and then exclude that group from access to a feature.

    See the slides at

    So what the people on your network will have to do is:
    – each of them has to create a group, for example: “may_not_see_friendslist”
    – put each and everyone of their friends into that group (that is, if they want to prevent all of their connections from seeing the other connections)
    – go to the “Friends” item you find under Settings… Privacy Settings… Profile
    – Set access to “Friends only”
    – on top of that, add the group “may_not_see_friendslist” to the people who are not allowed to see the friends list under “Except these people”

    As you can see, Facebook has made it rather difficult to hide your list of connections… we can safely say that it is in their business interest that people can surf around and make new connections…