Facebook fires up IM, ratchets up privacy

Fast-growing social network will let members choose how much of a profile is visible to individuals in their networks. Smart move--users have been clamoring for this for months.

CNET News.com's Dan Farber co-wrote this report.

Social network Facebook will roll out more extensive privacy controls Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, as well as an instant-messaging service soon after, representatives from the company announced during a press briefing at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.

The new Facebook friend-adding interface, integrated with privacy controls. Facebook

Most notable about the new privacy controls is the fact that Facebook members will now be able to choose how much of their profiles is visible to those on their friends list.

Naomi Gleit, Facebook's product manager for privacy and internationalization, previewed the updated options, which include a new "Friend of Friends" option based on social proximity--not unlike LinkedIn profiles, in which profile information is visible to second- and third-degree contacts rather than the site's members as a whole. Facebook members will also be able to include or exclude certain friends from having access to information.

In December, Facebook added the ability to create custom groups of friends, but aside from sending out group messages, there's not much that can currently be done with them. With this week's update, Facebook will integrate this function with its privacy controls. For example, a user could hide or show private information, such as e-mail address and phone numbers, from friends or groups using the classifications "Friend of Friends," "All Friends," "Some Friends," or "Only Me." This means that individuals on a friends list can have specific privacy settings, Gleit said. Whenever a Facebook member sends or confirms a friend request, he or she can assign privacy settings.

These new features, according to Facebook representatives, have already been extensively tested. Gleit explained that users have been asking for them, and said they will not have a negative impact on the thousands of third-party developers building applications for Facebook's platform.

Company executives discussed the ongoing evolution of the social network and explained that changes to the site's privacy controls are necessary given its rapid growth and increasingly diverse user base. Matt Cohler, vice president of strategy and business operations, reiterated a common Facebook talking point --that the social network is designed to facilitate better, more-personal ways to share and communicate information. Also central, he said, is the fact that Facebook's product allows users to have control over their personal information.

Facebook's upcoming chat interface, which the company says may be changed slightly before its final debut. Dan Farber/CNET News.com

"It manifests itself in two parts in the product. Tools have to be powerful for giving granular control, but on the other hand you have to make sure they are easy to use and simple and intuitive," Cohler explained. "Keeping those two things together has been something we've always thought about."

He described how Facebook began as a service for American college students--indeed, a university e-mail address was required to register--but four years later the user base, now numbering 67 million, has changed dramatically. Two-thirds of Facebook members are now outside the U.S., compared with just 10 percent 18 months ago.

"We think there are basic principles at the core that hold true," Cohler said.

But that's not all. As was rumored, Facebook will be launching an instant-messaging service , called Facebook Chat, which should be out in two weeks. Product manager Peter Deng gave a sneak peek of the service.

"When you log in to the site there is a Chat (user interface) at the bottom of the browser...It's unobtrusive and there when you need it," Deng said. No download will be required for Chat, which integrates with a user's Facebook friends list, and it works with all browsers. Members can hold multiple conversations, log on and off easily, keep the conversation going as they navigate through different pages on Facebook, and pop the chat up into a new window.

"We want Facebook to be part of your experience all over the Web," Cohler said. "Our business is not to make Facebook an island."

It sounds like Facebook Chat is too light of an application to pose a big threat to existing instant-messaging clients--at least for now. There's no limit to the number of chats a member can hold at a time, but they're all one-on-one (no group chats). There's also no "away message" function, just "idle" notifications if a member is logged in but has been away from the keyboard.

Additionally, Chat is restricted to Facebook alone. There's no API for it, so third-party services like Meebo can't access it. But the company is looking at Jabber support, which would mean that it could access external instant-messaging services much the way Google Talk does.

Matt Cohler: "We want Facebook to be part of your experience all over the Web." Dan Farber/CNET News

"We are looking at whether we will integrate it or not," Cohler said of Jabber. He added that other features in Chat are on the way, but not immediately.

Conversations in Facebook Chat are automatically archived for 90 days, after which the system clears them, but Facebook members will be able to clear their chat histories manually at any given time.

After the presentation, Cohler was asked about the company's relationship with the independent developers creating applications for it, perhaps because of concerns that Facebook would create an internal application that would rival third-party ones. "We develop our apps at parity with developers," he answered. "You can remove our apps and use other applications instead, and we don't make that difficult to do."

In addition, Cohler said, Facebook is hoping to strengthen its relationships with its developer community, perhaps holding another large-scale developer event like the one it held when it first launched the Facebook Platform last May.

See also: TechCrunch video of the Facebook Chat demo

Facebook Chat will allow unlimited one-to-one conversations. Dan Farber/CNET News.com
 

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