Social Networking Sites’ Privacy Settings

In order to get a better sense of how different social networking sites (SNS) in the US and BRIC countries approach their users’ privacy, I took screenshots from Facebook, Myspace, Orkut, and Vkontakte.  A very kind master’s student from China, Lydia Zhang, was kind enough to take screenshots of Xiaonei, China’s top SNS, and then translate them into English for our benefit!  Much love to Lydia!! (Lydia is working on a paper on SNSs as well; please, if you are a US student, fill out her survey and e-mail it along to her.  Thanks!)

Myspace is primarily a US thing, while Facebook is popular in the US but also in many other countries around the world (earlier, Gaurav posted about Oxyweb’s map of SNSs around the world).

Orkut is primarily associated with India and Brazil while Vkontakte is associated with Russia.  China’s primary SNS, Xiaonei, competes with Kaixin, but according to Lydia:

“Kaixin (means fun and happiness in Chinese) is a fast-growing SNS in China. Its success mainly relies on its spam-spreading e-mail invitation strategies among SNS users.  Some Chinese internet observers said Kaixin attracts people mainly from companies.  Those white-collar workers spend most of their boring working time on Kaixin to play games developed by third-parties with their colleagues, even their bosses.  This is what they think, leads to Kaixin’s surprisingly high user involvement.  Because users of Xiaonei are mostly college students, who don’t have convenient access (as those white-collar workers in companies) to internet because of economic factors. Generally speaking, Kaixin is basically a clone of Xiaonei but is featured by its spam-spreading and  some popular third-party applications, for example, some most successful games directly copied from FB and some games developed by Chinese third-party. These games of Chinese characteristic could be a possible topic for cross-cultural studies on group involvement of Chinese and foreign SNS. This requires more observations and I will keep tracking those information. Interesting enough is that Xiaonei now realised Kaixin’s threatening expanding and launched recently a new SNS aming at competing with Kaixin in games and other entertaining functions.”

A few notes:  1) Screenshots were taken on Nov. 1, 2008.  2) The screenshots are somewhat huge so I’m just using thumbnails for this post.  I’ve linked to the full-size versions instead.

Privacy settings menu screenshots:

Facebook

Facebook by far has the most extensive and precise (and as danah boyd says, confusing) security settings.  Not only can you blacklist individual users so that they can’t access you at all, you can also configure virtually any different category of information about yourself (education, work, bio, friends) by more categories than the other major SNSs:  friends, friends of friends, your primary network, all your networks, anyone, only some networks, and no one at all.  For your schools, you can also specify by undergrads, grads, alumns, faculty, and staff.

Facebook has so many privacy settings that it breaks them down into four primary categories:  profile, search, news feed and wall, and applications.  Primarily, you can limit your biographical information, who can see your different photo albums, and whether your info gets posted on your wall or not.  You can block whether search engines will index your profile or not, as well.

Another unique feature to Facebook is to see how your profile would look to a specific friend in your network, as an added security measure for those who are nervous about specific people.

At this point I must say that it would be difficult to quantify the number of settings per SNS to see which allowed for the most privacy.  Certainly Facebook offers a level of granularity unparalleled by any other SNS.  It doesn’t, however, let you open up your profile to everyone. The best way to measure degrees of privacy on other SNSs perhaps is to see what the other SNSs lack compared to Facebook.

Myspace

Myspace is currently the biggest SNS in the US but it’s highly doubtful that that will continue to be the case for much longer.  Myspace is undergoing a strategy revamp but is also not very useful compared to Facebook except in specific circumstances.  I was also amazed to see that it offers very little in the way of privacy control.

Myspace offers an individual blacklist, but otherwise has only 5 discrete settings under privacy to customize.  It lets you hide your age, online status, and birthday; it also allows you to blanket-protect your photos (with no granularity), and control who can view your profile by age.  Given that Myspace has the younger online demographic, compared with Facebook, this is completely unacceptable.  Not only does it not do a good job of protecting adults’ privacy, but it does very little to protect minors’ identities.  Outside literature I’ve read has suggested that minors have compensated by creating fake profiles known only among their circles of friends.

Orkut

Orkut, owned by Google, is used a lot in India and Brazil but not so much in the US.  It also has a surprisingly weak array of privacy control options, all fitting on one screen, just like Myspace’s.

Orkut protects against photo tagging (people uploading photos and tagging that you are in them), update statuses, Google indexing (since it’s integrated with Google search), and anonymous friend requests.  It lets you protect certain features (scraps, photos, testimonials, feeds) by three levels of settings:  friends, friends of friends, and anyone.  There is no “no one” setting or anything more granular.

Brazilians and Indians don’t seem to mind.

Vkontakte

Vkontakte is the most popular SNS in Russia, and along with China’s Xiaonei, is a blatant complete Facebook rip-off both in color scheme and layout.  Facebook has sued Vkontakte because of this.  The site DOES provide English support, which is useful for branching out from Russia.

One thing that’s interesting is that upon login, you have to check a box to NOT have Vkontakte save your login settings automatically.

Vkontakte has a blacklist feature.

Vkontakte lets you show your info to only friends, friends of friends, no one, and all users.  Mostly the controls, instead of controlling which of your info gets out, like on other SNSs, controls who can send info TO you, like invites, graffiti, and messages.  You can control who can view your photos or view your profile.  If you select “no one” for who can view your page, it actually says, “No one, delete my page”.  Harsh!

Xiaonei

Xiaonei leaves opting in as the default setting for many of its privacy controls.  For instance, unless you change your settings, anyone can see your entire profile at first, even if they don’t log in.

Xiaonei, as I learned from Lydia’s very helpful translations, probably has the second-best privacy controls to Facebook out of all the sites here.  Interestingly, it lets you share to all, or to just yourself, along with other degrees of privacy.  it lets you set privacy across several different categories of your personal information.  I counted more than 10 different categories.

I saw that Xiaonei offers IM on its profile page; IM in China is one of the biggest sources of traffic among Chinese users.  It also lets you see recent visitors, something you have on Orkut but not on other sites.

Conclusion

Both Myspace and Orkut contain separate settings to protect against spam.  This doesn’t exist on Facebook, Xiaonei (to my knowledge), and Vkontakte.  That they even have problems with spam says something about the data integrity within Myspace and Orkut.

I guess my closing question is, why does Facebook get so much more flak than other services for having lax privacy, when the other competitors’ sites are far worse?  Certainly Myspace had its days in the news for exposing minors to predators and abuse, but now Facebook is the target.  Is it also because Facebook not only might expose users to public and private abuse, but also to abuse by marketers, governments, employers, and corporations?  Is it telling that Xiaonei and Facebook, from China and the US, have similar degrees of privacy controls?