Yesterday, Facebook launched a beta test among a small number of users allowing them to prescribe different privacy settings to individual updates made via Publisher, the main utility for sharing status updates and other content on Facebook. The feature allows users to select exactly who they want to share a specific photo, video, or update with--ranging from the entire Web to a customized group of family or friends--and opens the door for increased public microblogging via Facebook.
The feature certainly offers an added value to Facebook users; after all, those Bonnaroo pics might be fine to share with your college buddies, but perhaps you'd prefer your coworkers and family to have a more PG-rated portrait of your life. The new feature works from the same privacy settings already existing on Facebook: Everyone (anyone on the Web, whether on Facebook or not), Friends and Networks, Friends of Friends, Friends (only) and Custom (where users can create customized friend lists). Those selected for the beta test can now choose the level of access for each individual post from a drop down menu.
This function seems a long time coming for Facebook, especially for those who remember the good old days when the site was college-only, before every one of life's mishaps became known to significant others, bosses, and grandmothers. Now, you can share vacation photos with the whole wide Web, post a video of your niece's birthday solely to family members, and keep those "Bonnaroo Day 3" photos between you and your bros from the Delta house.
In an update to the announcement of the feature, Facebook engineer Olaoluwa "Ola" Okelola stressed that no changes have been made to anyone's default privacy settings, a preemptive quelling of the privacy debate that ensues each time Facebook tinkers with the site. Okelola said the new feature simply "gives you the opportunity to answer the question, 'Who do you want to tell?' as easily as you answer the question, 'What's on your mind?'"
But it does a bit more than that. By differentiating between individual status updates, Facebook has maneuvered around one of the shortcomings of its site. Previously, if you wanted to microblog publicly (a la Twitter), it was necessary to open up all status updates to the entire Web. By making it simple to select privacy settings on a case-by-case basis, Facebook has potentially turned its News Feed into a microblog feed, encouraging more users to share content publicly. Given Facebook's explosive growth in the last year, its recent triumph over MySpace, and the imminent rollout of a search feature suspiciously reminiscent of Twitter search, Twitter must be looking over its shoulder.