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Facebook hits 350 million users, readies privacy revamp

Everybody's favorite time-suck cult exercise in collective narcissism social network is getting even bigger -- and trying to make itself simpler. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted an "open letter" on the site's blog last night, announcing that it now had more than 350 million users and previewing some changes to its privacy settings.

The number isn't tremendously surprising -- although, coming only two months and change after the Palo Alto, Calif., company hung up an "over 300 million served" sign, some might find it a little scary. I'm more interested in the privacy-settings changes, given Facebook's sometimes awkward history in that area.

First, Zuckerberg wrote, Facebook will get rid of "regional networks," the city-, region- or country-specific associations you can add to your profile to make it easier for people to find you. That move had been mentioned before on the company blog, and I agree with the reasons expressed the first time -- as these networks have become unmanageably large, they've decayed from feature to bug.

Second, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook would provide a simpler, cleaner interface to its privacy settings. The current implementation provides an immense amount of control, allowing you to show or hide different bits of content in varying contexts -- for example, I use multiple, partially overlapping friends lists to govern who can see my cellphone number and photos tagged of me. But Facebook lacks a beginner-friendly, click-here interface that could be easily grasped by those who don't dream in Venn diagrams.

The site founder didn't offer many details about how the new privacy interface would work but pointed to an earlier post by chief privacy officer Chris Kelly on that topic. That July piece explained that the site would provide a "Transition Tool" to walk users through the new settings and featured an illustration of how it might look -- a menu with "Open," "Recommended" (i.e., somewhat open) and "Limited" exposure options.

(Stop-me-if-you've-read-these-before disclosures: Kelly is a friend from college. Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors.)

Balancing people's interests in privacy and publicity in these simplified choices will be important -- but not as important as the site's new default settings, since most people will probably stick with them. Do you have any suggestions for how Facebook should go about this? What sort of formula do you have for privacy settings on the site?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 2, 2009; 12:44 PM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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From a business perspective, I know why they won't do it, but I do wish Facebook would set all news users' privacy to the strictest settings and let them downgrade the privacy to their hearts' content. This would eliminate (or reduce, anyway) the whining idiocy of "I didn't know everyone would see THAT!"

Posted by: pjgeraghty | December 2, 2009 10:09 PM | Report abuse

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