Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Five Questions With Facebook’s Chris Cox

Facebook often sends product managers and marketing team members to do WebEx briefings with journalists about new features. So it’s somewhat noteworthy that the social networking giant trotted out its resident forest-through-the-trees seeker, VP of Product Chris Cox, to pitch the press on what’s essentially a set of responses to user complaints that Facebook is launching this week.

In an interview with AllThingsD on Monday, Cox tried to paint Facebook’s latest round of tweaks to user profiles and sharing settings into a bigger picture. He also fought off questions about the sensitive topic of competition with Google+.

“I see this as a big advance,” Cox said of the new features, which will roll out to users starting this week. “One component of what you’re sharing is the content, but the other component is the audience. I just think that’s an exciting, high-level idea.”

Here’s a lightly edited write-up of our conversation.

AllThingsD: It seems to me that Facebook has had a mentality of asking users to opt out rather than opt in to being tagged by other users, starting with photo tagging and including recent launches like Facebook Places. And the idea seemed to be a philosophy about encouraging social sharing and spreading, which sometimes freaks people out because they didn’t necessarily give someone else permission to use their name. But now you’re changing how photo tagging works so users can keep themselves from being tagged. Is that a change of philosophy?

Chris Cox: We’re still really focused on tagging being easy to understand. We do think it’s important that people can tag anyone and anything, but on the flip side, your profile is yours, so this is an attempt to get the balance right.

You’re fixing a lot of the most common complaints about Facebook. But that’s also what Google+ just did.

These changes have been in the works for six months. Part of the process for making changes like these is to [run them by] regulatory and legal and special interest privacy groups. It’s not the kind of thing where we can respond to what Google’s doing in a month. This really is not at all about Google in any way, it’s about trying to iterate.

You’re also yet again changing a lot of the Facebook interface, moving things around that people have been accustomed to using every day — though I know you said you’ll be making special efforts to explain the new stuff to users. But just about a year ago you guys had done a major privacy revamp and said people could rest easy that those settings would remain consistent for a while.

We continue to read user feedback, and clearer controls was still at the top of the list. As long as it was at the top of the list we couldn’t stop working on it. And we’re incorporating a lot of the stuff we did last May into this. We’re not reverting; I see this as a big advance.

People are figuring out how they want to use this stuff at the same time as you’re building it. But I think there’s a growing cultural awareness, or skepticism, that anything you put online could get into the hands of someone who could use it against you, regardless of the privacy settings.

As long as email has been around, you can cut and paste anything. Nobody can guarantee that something you write in email won’t get anywhere. And it’s not just the digital world; if you throw something in your trashcan, it could get out. Replicating and distributing information is getting easier, not just on Facebook and not just on the Internet.

That kind of advice on balance is good in terms of getting people to think about what they’re sharing. On Facebook we can show you: this is who’s going to see it on your profile. That we can guarantee. We can’t guarantee that someone won’t copy and paste and mail it to your boss because we don’t have control over the desktop and we don’t have control of snail mail.

If you had to pick, what would you say is the most important part of this week’s release?

In each post, now, is communicated the audience. And that’s what the Facebook product is, it’s a sharing tool. One component of what you’re sharing is the content, but the other component is the audience. I just think that’s an exciting, high-level idea.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work