It seems that there can't be a single day that goes by without someone mentioning Facebook and "privacy" in the same sentence. So we weren't all that surprised when, yesterday, The Next Web reported that Facebook may have dug into users' private messages to inflate their "Like" counts on external websites.
It turns out that Facebook merely was parsing shared URLs (yes, in private messages), but not attributing a user's icon or identity to the posts on the publicly shared posts. In and of itself, this doesn't seem like a huge deal, but it did raise the question: What exactly does a "Like" mean anymore?
Interestingly enough, as the Next Web points out, Facebook clearly laid out the public number found on their like button. Here are the components included in the count:
- The number of likes of this URL
- The number of shares of this URL (this includes copy/pasting a link back to Facebook)
- The number of likes and comments on stories on Facebook about this URL
- The number of inbox messages containing this URL as an attachment
This is a far cry from what the "Like" button used to mean. Think about it — in the earliest days of the newsfeed as well as Facebook, a like button meant that a user actually liked the content. But with shares — especially shares through private messages — is it fair for Facebook to continue to brand it as only a public sentiment feature?
As a Next Web commenter notes, the Like button no longer acknowledges sentiment — but that's the exact problem, the Like button has traditionally been just that.
Changing A Feature's Meaning — And Not Telling The User
Privacy aside, this situation raises a bigger question: To what extent should a user need to know about changes in features once assumed to be true?
It's clear that the meaning of the Like button has significantly changed from sentiment to amplification. There is nothing wrong with this, in and of itself. But the fact that users seem to be left out in the dust with regard to it's new meaning is troubling. As we pointed out yesterday, transparency is important to building user trust.
Is it really Facebook's responsibility to tell the user that it's changed? Approaching this from a company perspective is actually quite different — outlining the specific ways the Like button aggregates a total could confuse the user more than actually clarifying how it works. The fact that privacy questions arose only adds to the complexity of the situation.
How Open Should Product Designers Be on Feature Changes?
When thinking about your holistic design strategy, your focus should squarely be on matching your company or business goals with user needs. When considering any feature changes, it's important to anticipate and consider user reactions based on how they use your product.
For instance, you might remember we covered the topic of read receipts in social products back in August. For most of these companies, it was a controversial feature addition. Given that read receipts generally signify a passive action (reading vs. sharing), it's fascinating how much the sentiment differed amongst the services we examined. For the most part, companies were fairly open with their users on their changes to the product — whatever the outcome.
If the Facebook situation is any hint, product designers should share significant changes in feature functionality with users upfront. It's crucial to keeping users immersed in using the product over the long term and can prevent them from jumping ship to a competitor.