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3GT is back

Just a quick note that 3GT, our Facebook app based on the positive psychology exercise Three Good Things, is back online after some time at the spa. The new version is based on some of what I learned from the last release. Some of the social and feedback lessons still need to be applied, so look for that in new features over the next couple of weeks.

You can access it as a standalone app or on Facebook. I’m just doing friends and family testing and some refinements on it for now, so feedback is welcome.

some thoughts on Facebook’s recent changes, from the perspective of an application designer

There’s a lot to like about the recent changes to Facebook, but, as an application developer, many of the changes are a mixed bag. Changes to navigation and to interaction points between Facebook and applications are problematic, while new application privacy features are a good start but seem incomplete.

Navigation to Apps
Formerly, the application dock made it easy to access an application from anywhere in Facebook. One click to get to a bookmarked application; two clicks (without waiting for page loads) to get to other applications. In the new homepage, this has been removed.

Not so with the new design. If an application doesn’t have a tab on your profile page, the only way to access it is from the home page. From my profile or someone else’s profile, this means: click to the Facebook home page, wait for the page to load, click the app icon (or, if the application is not one of your top three book marks, click more and then click the app icon). Yes, this is only one more click, but it requires waiting for an entire page load, and it’s worse for non-bookmarked apps: one click to the home page, wait for it to load, one click to the application dashboard, wait for it to load, one click for “see all of your applications,” wait for that to load, and finally click on the application.

One possible remedy might be to add an “applications” drop-down next to the new notifications, requests, and messages icons.

At the end of the month, Facebook will turn off the ability of applications to send notifications. This is a method I’ve been using to send reminders in Three Good Things, for both automatically generated reminders and user-to-user reminders.

3GT Notifications

3GT Notifications. Left: system generated reminder. Right: user-to-user reminder.

I like that the notifications are less invasive than email reminders. Some 3GT users appreciated their subtlety, though they may have been a little too subtle, at least when they appeared at the bottom of the screen, as many of 3GT users we interviewed never noticed the notifications they received. More importantly, they allowed notifications at the right time. Rather than sending someone a reminder to post — a reminder that might interrupt their other activity or would at least require them to visit the website — the notifications appeared when a 3GT participant was already logged into Facebook, when it was likely convenient for them to post a “good thing” in our application. B.J. Fogg, a champion of persuasive technology, calls this right-time, right-place notification kairos.

I understand that notifications have gotten a lot more intrusive with the addition of push notifications to the iPhone app, and that some app developers have used them more than some Facebook users would prefer. Facebook has also added additional integration points. On the balance, though, I think notifications are going to be an unfortunate integration point to lose.

Application Privacy
Along with some others building health and wellness applications for the Facebook platform, I’ve felt fairly strongly that Facebook needs to give users and developers enhanced privacy controls for applications. At a minimum, this should include the ability to hide one’s use of an application from friends (i.e., not appearing under “friends using this application” in the application’s profile page).

With the recent updates Facebook’s designers and developers appear to have recognized some of these concerns. Application developers are able to set an application as “private,” causing one’s use to not appear in the new application dashboard. This is a good start, but it feels incomplete for a number of reasons. First, users, not developers, should have control of privacy. What’s to stop a developer from later reverting to a more public setting, instantly and completely changing what user activity is revealed? Currently, users do not have any way to remove this information once it appears, either.

Second, this level of privacy does not extend far enough. Friends who use private applications still appear on the application’s profile page under “friends using this application.” Furthermore, the model of application use and content being either private or public is insufficient. In health and wellness applications, for example, participants may benefit from sharing and interacting with other participants in the intervention as well as their friends or family members on Facebook, while also wanting to keep their activity private from coworkers.

This is something that Facebook has already discovered and addressed with the newsfeed (now stream) content, but application content does not enjoy the same privacy controls. To share with only a subset of one’s friends within an application, however, application developers must implement their own social graph features and users must built a second network within the application. Enabling privacy controls similar to those for the newsfeed for application content and use could help people to feel more comfortable using health wellness applications on Facebook while creating more possibilities for designers. A user could only allow an application to be aware of relationships in one or more friend lists or networks, or to select some to exclude from the application while allowing the other connections to remain visible. Assuming a user had created the necessary friend lists or that their privacy preferences mapped to their networks, this would allow someone to filter out their coworkers or to allow only close friends to see their participation.

Update: As of 17 February, Facebook has added a privacy argument to calls for publishing methods (e.g. Stream.publish that gives applications much more control over shared content.

three good things

Three Good ThingsThe first of my social software for wellness applications is available on Facebook (info page).

Three Good Things supports a positive psychology exercise in which participants record three good things, and why these things happened. When completed daily – even on the bad days – over time, participants report increased happiness and decreased symptoms of depression. The good things don’t have to be major events – a good meal, a phone call with a friend or a family member, or a relaxing walk are all good examples.

I’m interested in identifying best practices for deploying these interventions on new or existing social websites, where adding social features may make the intervention more or less effective for participants, or may just make some participants more likely to complete the exercise on a regular basis. Anyway, feel free to give the app a try – you’ll be helping my research and you may end up a bit happier.

privacy on twitter vs. privacy on facebook

In a post describing some teens’ use of Twitter and Facebook (Twitter is for friends; Facebook is everybody; some teens are using private Twitter accounts for communication with friends because Twitter is too public), danah boyd poses the following question:

My guess is that if Twitter does take off among teens and Dylan’s friends feel pressured to let peers and parents and everyone else follow them, the same problem will arise and Twitter will become public in the same sense as Facebook. This of course raises a critical question: will teens continue to be passionate about systems that become “public” (to all that matter) simply because there’s social pressure to connect to “everyone”?

I believe that Twitter may actually be much more resistant to both this pressure and subsequent switch to less “public” platforms than Facebook for two reasons: account norms and Twitter clients.

Account Norms, Privacy, and Collapsed Contexts
On Facebook, everyone pretty much gets one account.1 This leaves me with a choice of collapsed contexts (same profile for everyone) or only friending people from a particular context or set of context. There are many fine-grained privacy controls, but this all adds up to a more-is-less experience, at least for me. There are enough many controls that I don’t particularly remember what I’ve set to be visible to whom. When I comment on something in friend’s profile (or am tagged in one of their photos), I don’t know who can see that.

With Twitter, people can have multiple accounts, and for private accounts, they know exactly who can see their posts: only people who I give permission. This is not to say Twitter is not without some privacy pitfalls – e.g. plenty of private tweets get retweeted or replies on others’ public accounts – but I have a much clearer idea of who can see a status update or reply on Twitter than I do of who can see similar content on Facebook at the time of posting. I suspect that many users of private Twitter accounts do so just to avoid the “what if so-and-so sees this?” question. So it seems reasonable that people could have different accounts for their work, family, friends, etc personas, though there’s a point at which it probably would be too many.

Twitter Clients
Having multiple accounts wouldn’t work well without an appropriate interface, and here Twitter benefits hugely from its API and the many, many Twitter clients available. Using more than one Facebook account, especially simultaneously, is an ordeal – multiple web browsers, no aggregation. With the right client, reading from and posting to multiple Twitter accounts is a breeze.

So while there may eventually be an exit from a more public Twitter, I think there is more room to move within the same service, diversifying accounts, than there might be on Facebook. This will only, work, though if people are willing to set boundaries and accept boundaries – and probably not if mom and dad insist on following the Twitter account their kids use to communicate with friends from school, or if colleagues regularly feel insulted when a coworker-acquaintance declines their request to follow an account they use to communicate with close friends.

1I believe this used to be part of the terms of service, but I don’t see it anymore and can’t be sure that it was ever there.

social sites repurposing contacts

A month or so ago, Cory Doctorow wrote a column about how your “creepy ex-co-workers will kill Facebook,” and introduced what he calls “boyd’s law:”

Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.

I think there’s an important corollary: adding more features and content types to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.

Recent concerns about Beacon are one example. Yes, the privacy issues of an opt-out tool that follows you around from site to site recording your behavior are huge. But there’s also the issue of having this content added to the Facebook at all. Even among my close friends, I don’t want a list of their recent purchases. It’s not something we do in person, and it’s not something I want to do online. A site, though, can cause the same problem by adding content that I share with some people, but not necessarily my current friends. Facebook users presumably friend each other based on the norms for sharing the content that existed on Facebook at the time, adding more content or just changing how Facebook shares the content already there can cause some problems. Some of the content Beacon tried to so forcefully share isn’t that much different than if LinkedIn suddenly started sharing relationship status: you don’t want software deciding to re-purpose one set of social ties into another. For now, Facebook is handling this challenge with extremely fine-grained privacy controls, but that’s a lot of overhead.

The de-placing of facebook
When Facebook was smaller and the bounds were clearer, users had less need of the privacy settings. Two years ago, I had a pretty clear distinction in my head. Facebook was for some social communication and sharing among my college friends and some friends from high school. It had a clear identity, and felt either like a place or very connected to my school as place. I knew who I would “run into” on Facebook, and I knew that the content would be related to college students’ self-expression, communication, and socialization. Within the bounds, it was possible to identify a fairly consistent set of behaviors and information that members were willing to share with each other. Not so anymore. As Facebook adds users and features, it undermines this sense of place. Anyone, including the creepy ex-coworker, might show up. With new features and new applications, I am also less able to anticipate Facebook’s content.

I’m not necessarily criticizing Facebook’s decision to reduce their placiness. Its leadership has decided to trade some of the sense of place for growth, instead becoming an application platform and contact/identity management system. That’s their gamble to take, but I am critical that they seem to be moving in this direction without clearly thinking through some of the consequences for their members.

Other examples of repurposing contacts
Facebook isn’t the only company that has recently re-purposed existing social network information to share additional content. This December, if you use Google Reader and GTalk, Google decided to share all of your shared RSS feed items with all of your GTalk contacts. Your GTalk contacts were already being added to from people you email, so for many users, this exposed their shared items to many people they’d emailed a few times. This decision seems to be based on the incredibly naïve assumption that if you share content with some people, you want to share it with everyone you email. One user reported that this “ruined Christmas.”

Unforunately, as Google and Yahoo increasingly leverage our inboxes to compete with Facebook, we can probably look forward to more of the missteps.

Pursuit of places
I do think it’s possible to grow while keeping a distinct sense of place. After purchasing Flickr,, and upcoming, Yahoo! kept their contact lists separate and retained the identity of each property. Some would probably criticize Yahoo! for not integrating their brand, but I think that time will show they’ve made the right choice. It’s also true that managing the separate contact lists is very similar to the overhead of Facebook’s privacy settings, but there are a some key differences: managing your Flickr contacts does not interfere with the sense of Flickr as a bounded place, and you can (at least currently) be reasonably comfortable that Flickr is not going to repurpose your Flickr contacts outside of the social norms for Flickr users.

This also makes me believe that social startups like dopplr and others can succeed by creating a clear identity as a place. Even if Facebook offered better features (and perhaps more convenience) for sharing my travel status and tips with others, I’d still seek out Dopplr for its characteristics as a space — it’s a much more pleasant experience.