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Operating Systems

A 10-item Facebook wish list

You can't argue with the social network's runaway success, but making Facebook the ultimate Web destination requires more customizability, searchability, and sortability.

Someday Facebook won't be the No. 1 social network and No. 2 most popular Web site (numbers courtesy of Alexa's Top Sites list). But that day is probably a long way off. Here are 10 ways I'd like to see everybody's favorite social network improved. (For 10 ways to customize your Facebook status, see Amy-Mae Elliott's post on Mashable.)

1) Prioritize the feed. Facebook's Top News feed delivers the most popular updates from your friends. (The Facebook Blog explains how the Top News feed functions.) Unfortunately, there's no way to customize this feature so that only posts from the people you specify appear in this feed.

You can organize your Facebook friends into groups via the Create a List option: click Account > Edit Friends > Create a List, give the list a name, select the members of the list, and click Create List. What I would like to do is view status updates by group (or "list") so I see posts from family first and updates from work associates later, for example.

2) Make posts and uploads sortable and searchable. One of my favorite features of e-mail is the ability to view messages from specific senders or based on mail content or other attributes. Facebook dumps everything into one long stream, so there's no easy way to retrieve my nephews' posts from Las Vegas last month, for example. Instead, I have to open each nephew's photo page to find the incriminating photos I'm looking for.

The Facebook search feature can't be applied only to your friends' profiles, nor can you easily find and sort your friends' posts related to a specific topic, such as all those who have raved about their iPads. Conversely, finding all the e-mail I've received that mentions the iPad is a breeze.

3) Make Facebook apps more trustworthy. I was happy to find the pace of Farmville-related updates dropping to a trickle in recent weeks, but I still cringe when I see a Facebook post generated by some application I never heard of. You can--and should--reset your Facebook privacy settings to help prevent your personal information from falling into the wrong hands, but some Facebook apps gain access to your private data via your friends' profiles and activities. (See the next item for information on resetting Facebook's default privacy options.)

What's needed is an anonymizing feature that prevents your data from being available to anyone you haven't approved beforehand. I would feel more comfortable sharing and making personal comments if I knew I was doing so in semi-stealth mode so only my friends were privy to the information.

4) Default settings aren't private enough. In August 2009 I described how to reset Facebook's default privacy settings, which I believe aren't safe enough. The steps for doing so are slightly different now: click Account > Privacy Settings > Customize settings and make your changes via the drop-down menus.

Facebook Privacy Settings page
Customize Facebook's default privacy settings by choosing options on the drop-down menus for various categories. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Last June I reviewed free Facebook privacy scanners that help you determine whether your Facebook data is safe. Back in April, Facebook expanded its advice for parents and teenagers, including information to thwart bullying and other types of abuse.

5) Still too few safeguards for children and newbies. Even with Facebook's revamped instructions for parents and children, the service doesn't offer sufficient guidance for new members. The service's Getting Started page provides information only for finding friends but says nothing about the implications and risks entailed in using Facebook's third-party applications.

The Guide to Privacy on Facebook offers only a single paragraph on application security. The Facebook Security page offers a seven-question Security Quiz developed with the help of three online security organizations. Experienced Web users will likely breeze through the questions, but a 30-second security refresher couldn't hurt. It wouldn't be a bad idea for Facebook to make the quiz a requirement for new users.

6) Too much scrolling, too few tabs. Facebook's unending update scroll is a throwback to the Web's early days of everything being thrown on a single page. Tabs are the modern way to organize and view Web information. Imagine separate Facebook tabs for family posts, work-related posts, and posts on specific subjects or with a certain type of content.

7) Integrate Facebook mail with other mail systems. It's too easy for me to miss new Facebook mail. For example, the other day I noticed a friend's reply to a previous message had been sitting unread in my Facebook inbox for two weeks. (Facebook sends alerts to your primary e-mail address but not when someone replies to an earlier message.) Some people may prefer to keep their Facebook mail separate from their other messages, but I'd like the option to view all my mail in one place.

8) Too much self-promotion/propagation. It makes perfect business sense for Facebook to encourage people to connect with more people and generally spend more time using the service. After all, the more Facebook knows about its users, the more precisely it can place its ads and the more money the service makes. Facebook also makes money by selling what it knows about its users--anonymously, of course.

People are just starting to realize the value of their Facebook connections and activities to the company (the same is true for the other Web services we use). One of these days, we may wise up and tell these services that if they're going to make money from tracking us, they're going to have to cut us in for a share. I know, dream on.

9) Localization is still too hard/no focus on real communities. Facebook Places lets you alert friends to your whereabouts automatically, which helps people hook up with you when they're nearby. This isn't the same as hooking up with your community, however.

Facebook suggests friends and provides various tools for finding friends based on your e-mail contacts, groups, and current and former employers. What isn't available is an easy way to connect with people in your neighborhood or community so you can keep tabs on the really local news. It would be nice to be able to geocode Facebook posts and view a map of posts based on those codes. I'd also like a cloud view of post topics with a geographic component to get a glimpse of trending topics in the neighborhood.

10) Mirror my real-life interaction with family, friends, and associates. It's no surprise that I'm more interested in work-related Facebook updates during working hours and new posts from family and friends in the evening and on weekends. Why not prioritize posts based on my work and leisure schedule?

Likewise, in the days leading up to a big event, I'd like to move updates from friends associated with that event to the top of the queue or otherwise reset update priority on an ad-hoc basis. And how difficult would it be to redirect work-related posts while you're on vacation and view them (or not) when you return to work? The customization possibilities are limitless.

It's unlikely that we'll be seeing any of these new Facebook features in the near future, but Facebook is also a development platform, so enterprising developers could deliver new ways to slice and dice our Facebook data--if the Facebook API supports it, that is. For Facebook to realize its potential as the ultimate Web portal, the service will have to be more adaptable to its users' preferences and proclivities. Otherwise, someone else will steal Facebook's momentum and render the service tomorrow's MySpace.