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Originally published Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 2:37 PM

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Facebook continues to be surprised by backlash to changes

The only surprise about the stunning level of vitriol Facebook's recent changes have sparked is that, once again, Facebook is surprised.

San Jose Mercury News

The only surprise about the stunning level of vitriol Facebook's recent changes have sparked is that, once again, Facebook is surprised.

The latest controversy began last month when the company announced a service known as the "Open Graph," which allows it to share your Facebook profile across a wide range of other Web sites.

Now, for the record, I'm a fan of many of the latest changes. But they've sparked an intense backlash among some leading figures in the technology community over the privacy implications this sharing raises, although it's unclear how widespread the discontent is.

In an interview last week, Facebook executive Bret Taylor talked to me about the backlash. Taylor joined Facebook in August after it acquired his company, FriendFeed. Taylor oversaw the development of many of the new features.

"The scope of the conversation has been much wider than I would have expected," he said. "It's been a really valuable experience for us internally, what experiences people like and what causes discomfort."

But what troubles me is that each time the company makes changes to its site, it seems to be caught flat-footed by its users' reaction.

This pattern — make changes, trigger revolt, make belated changes and apologize — has repeated itself so often that we are forced to conclude that this is how Facebook chooses to conduct business.

During our conversation, Taylor made a few points. First, Facebook is listening. He acknowledged it had done a poor job explaining the most recent changes and their value to its 400 million users. Second, the company is digesting the feedback.

"We're currently evaluating the best way to respond to the concerns," he said. "And changing things is on the table."

On the more fundamental point — why does this cycle of backlash keep happening — Taylor said the company knows it has to stop:

"That's something we've talked a lot about, given what's happened," Taylor said. "Hopefully, coming out of it, we'll learn a better process for launching these things."

You'd think if a company got whacked by a bat in the face as many times as Facebook has, certain lessons would begin to sink in. Lessons such as: Don't surprise your users, especially when it comes to their data. And: Expect some blowback and have some plan for responding beyond again circling the wagons. Hopefully, this time they will.

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The resulting backlash has elements of comedy and nastiness mixed in with genuine points that Facebook should heed. It started with some tech insiders denouncing the changes, and in some cases, deleting their Facebook accounts.

Their actions triggered the usual round of posts across the blogosphere. And that was picked up by the mainstream media, which began to do stories about the Facebook privacy storm without much evidence there actually was one.

But this appears to have moved beyond the parlor debates of a few tech insiders. A parent at my son's school, for instance, recently forwarded to our school's listserv an e-mail from liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org warning members about the dangers of Facebook.

On the other hand, a site called "Quit Facebook Day" has signed up only 3,767 people who committed to publicly delete their accounts on May 31.

Taylor said that at the moment, the company believes most of the outcry is coming from the technology community, rather than its broader user base. One suggestion: Facebook needs to make privacy settings easier to navigate, and deleting an account more straightforward.

I was glad to hear Taylor say: "The simplicity theme is dominating our internal discussions. Having lots of knobs and dials gives people more control. But it doesn't make it simple."

I expect that in the end, Facebook will make the proper adjustments. But if it truly wants our faith for the long run, it must do more than show it knows how to fix these problems. It has to stop them from happening and end the cycle of backlash for good.

Chris O'Brien is a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News.

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