MySpace Oversimplifies Privacy to Get Attention

In an odd role reversal, MySpace is now declaring itself a bastion of social networking privacy, at least in comparison to Facebook. The company will default many users’ settings to “friends only” and is pre-announcing features that will allow users to choose between three options: public, friends only, or public to anyone 18 or over.

Part of MySpace's current privacy settings page

This is ironic. Back in ancient history (about five years ago), MySpace became dominant as a dating and entertainment site on the force of open profiles and membership. (In many ways, the site was the predecessor to Twitter, giving fans the ability to “friend” celebrities and get updates on their lives.) Meanwhile, Facebook was much more private and personal, initially closed to everyone but validated students. Since then, each time Facebook has opened up further it has offered additional tools to help users keep their participation private from people like coworkers, non-friends and parental units.

But all those Facebook privacy settings have piled up. Plus, Facebook’s own interests have changed, as it realized the greater opportunity to extend beyond the boundaries of personal communication and just one web site. And it’s introduced new features that have accidentally exposed private user information. Now the company finds itself in a massive privacy backlash.

So MySpace is trying to nudge its way back into the spotlight by declaring its dedication to user privacy. And more than that, *simple* user privacy. Co-president Mike Jones wrote in a blog post today:

We want our users to know we are planning the launch of a simplified privacy setting for our user profiles. While we’ve had these plans in the works for some time, given the recent outcry over privacy concerns in the media, we felt it was important to unveil those plans to our users now. We believe users want a simpler way to control their privacy. That’s why, in the coming weeks, MySpace will continue to simplify its privacy settings to create a simpler, more intuitive approach that gives users greater control over their information. Setting options will include public, friends only, or public to anyone 18 or over. In making this change, MySpace will default the setting to “friends only” for any user who previously had any granular page setting to “friends only.” Users can change this option with one click if they choose.

To be sure, MySpace has always offered privacy settings (my own profile has been on lock-down for years after some of the skeezy stuff that went on in the early days). This privacy move is just a play for attention — the blogged-about features don’t even have a proposed launch date.

But honestly, privacy is not simple anymore. Not that privacy was ever that simple in the offline world! The difference is now, there’s a preserved recording of our every last secret shared, off-color remark, and embarrassing photo. As Kevin Kelleher wrote for GigaOM this weekend, “For most people, 50 different privacy settings is 49 too many” in regard to Facebook. But for me, that’s too simplistic — and it’s the same trap into which MySpace is falling.

Privacy settings are complicated because privacy is complicated. Ask yourself: Which people do you want to allow to see a picture that another person has posted that includes your face? The question is hard to express in words, let alone pre-set controls — but it’s a conundrum that happens millions of times per day on Facebook. Same goes for MySpace, even if is past its day in the sun.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Could Privacy Be Facebook’s Waterloo?

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.