Reverse Engineering Facebook Privacy Settings for Your Viewing Pleasure

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

No matter what your level of interest or involvement in Facebook is, you’re probably aware of its basic purpose: connecting you with people you know. And, based on how much information they want to share, that connection can sometimes tip overboard into the Too-Much-Information category.

We Share a Lot. But Does That Mean We Need to See a Lot?

The potential for Facebook to overload us with things we definitely don’t need–and sometimes plain just don’t want–to know has been an issue, to varying degrees, for awhile now. Remember the “MySpace ruined my relationship” t-shirt? Same premise. And how many jobs, marriages and friendships have ended awkwardly thanks to someone neglecting to pay attention to what they post online?

We live in a culture that increasingly values openness and honesty, in much the way that privacy was prized in the past. Facebook has continually worked to fine-tune their privacy settings to allow for full customization of your profile display, but this can only go so far. Once you are on Facebook or any other social network, a certain amount of information is always going to be available for public consumption. And by signing up for these sites, you’ve also opted to receive a flood of information from other users. But how much is too much?

Privacy Settings Only Apply to Your Profile

Thanks to friend lists and nearly fully-customizable controls, you can allow your best friend to see every dirty detail of last weekends debauchery, while your boss remains blissfully unaware. These features are great; I love keeping embarrassing photos out of public view. But what if I don’t want visuals of your drunken antics? Or I really, really don’t care about your incessant Twitter updates, but enjoy your blog posts. If I can customize what I show you, why can’t I customize what I see from you?

I was recently approached by a reader who has remained friends with an ex on Facebook, but (understandably) wasn’t interested in seeing her cutesy updates about her new beau and the corresponding albums of them together. A very real situation I’m sure plenty of people have found themselves in. As I told him, at this point, Facebook has two options for dealing with this: hide all her updates, or unfriend her. You could also ask your ex to block you from viewing photos, but that gets a little weird.

Display Settings Would Allow Each User to Customize What They See, And From Whom

Perhaps the ex example is extreme, but it gets the point across: why can’t you have more tailored control over what you see in your feed, the way you do about your own feed? The “hide” button is a relatively new Facebook function, and while it’s useful, it’s an all or nothing deal; if I don’t want to see your photo upload but do like the notes you post, I have to manually check your profile for updates once I’ve “hidden” you in my feed. This defeats the purpose of the news feed, which functions much like an RSS reader and is meant to streamline Facebook browsing of our friends.

As Facebook continues to create more robust functionality and play up their recent acquisition of FriendFeed, I hope we will see more developments in making Facebook really about each user and what they want out of the site. I’d love to be able to reverse engineer my Facebook lists and privacy settings to dictate what I see from friends, instead of what they see from me.


  • If someone has me in their privacy setting so I can’t see their wall but we have mutual friends, can I still see pists made by that person on other people’s walls? also, I am no longer able to see wall posts of mutual friends. Is that becaause I am on their privacy list too.

    Comment by Linda — September 15, 2009 @ 2:01 pm
  • Came across this today because I was wondering if something was out there for this. It’s a good solution to dilemmas like, “I appreciate our friendship/networked-ness for x but I really, really don’t want to know y and z,” without unfriending people one has maybe known for a long time. Any folow-up on this? Or thoughts two years later?

    Comment by Ardith — July 27, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI