September 29, 2005
Friendster's sneak attack on your anonymity

I've just sent the following mass e-mail to all my Friendster friends, and their reaction has convinced me that this is an issue of universal significance.

I just discovered that Friendster has a creepy new feature that not only allows you to see HOW MANY people have viewed your profile, but WHO those people are. This freaks me out. The good thing is, you can turn it off (i.e. make it so other people can't see that you've looked at their profile). Go to "my settings" in the upper right hand corner, and there's a setting below that says "view profiles anonymously."

They've clearly been collecting this data for a while, because it shows me a lonnnnng list of people that have viewed my profile (and furthermore, my preliminary tests indicate that changing your privacy settings do not retroactively remove you from anyone's "Who's Viewed Me" list). In addition to being a creepy feature to begin with, I think it's really crappy for Friendster to add this feature w/o posting a big notification about it. if you want to complain (like I do) send an e-mail to suggestions@friendster.com.

You can find this feature by clicking on "Who's Viewed Me" on the left hand side of your Friendster home screen, under your photo. I was so shocked and angry, I sent the following e-mail to Friendster:

I have several comments about the new ability to see who has viewed your profile on Friendster.

  • In the future, when adding a feature that significantly changes a
    fundamental character of the system (browsing profiles freely and
    anonymously), I would appreciate PROMINENT notification!
  • Furthermore, you should be able to give people a chance to opt out from
    the beginning of this feature (although it is possible to set my account for
    anonymous browsing, the "who has viewed my profile" list extends far
    backwards from today, which was the first day I noticed this feature).
  • Finally, especially when adding a feature with no warning, the DEFAULT
    setting should be the one that provides the most privacy and control to the
    users (i.e. allowing people to turn ON this feature, not requiring them to
    turn it off).

I looked at Friendster's Privacy Policy to try to pinpoint a violation, but their policy is predictably vague. It doesn't seem to say anything about limits on information shared between users.

For some people, this may be a wake up call--"holy crap, all these people have been inspecting my profile!?!" All of us would do well to remember that Friendster is ultimately a huge repository of extremely detailed personal information, available to anyone who knows your last name, where you live, where you grew up, or where you went to school. For me, this change is ultimately an issue of embarrasment--I don't necessarily want all my friends from elementary school to know I like to spend my spare time looking up anybody whose last name I can remember.

But the important point is: Friendster suddenly and without notice changed a fundamental assumed feature of the community--that you could look at anybody's profile you wanted to, while remaining anonymous yourself. Before this change, people who did not want random people to look at their profiles could change their settings accordingly. To apply this new feature retroactively and without notice really feels like a serious invasion of privacy. I don't like it. Do you?

Posted by Tara Wheatland at September 29, 2005 10:40 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Right on! My friends and I are all outed as stalksters. And I don't feel better knowing other people feel the same way, because when I look at who has viewed me I think, "Wow, they must be obsessed with me."
Friendster's web techs are EVIL!

Posted by: STALKSTER on September 30, 2005 02:04 PM

I cannot believe Friendster did this. I have to imagine many people feel the same way as the previous two posters do. Friendster had to have known that this was going to create A LOT of angry people.

Posted by: Really mad on September 30, 2005 03:00 PM

Just found your blog while googling this new feature. I agree with your post totally. This sucks! They should have sent out a mass email or let us know somehow. Especially that it goes back from before they even had the tracker! We were under the impression nobody would know about our stalking-people-from-3rd-grade ways!

Posted by: annoyed on September 30, 2005 05:11 PM

I recently received an email from one of our users expressing deep disappointment about our decision to release the new "who's viewed me" feature. Below was my response and per his suggestion, I am posting it for other users as well:

I appreciate your detailed email. As Friendster's CEO, I can tell you with absolute convicition that it was never our intent to make the feature non-retroactive. Also, it is not true that we did not tell users about his beforehand. Because we did not feel it was worthy of an email blast to all of our registered users, we posted it in the support discussion boards in several places in advance.

We discovered this morning that the feature was inadvertently non-retroactive, and therefore we are literally right now rolling back and purging all past views and implementing the functionality from scratch. This process will take several hours but we are committed to correcting this technical oversight.

Of course, I would love nothing more than for you and any other user of our site to stay and continue to enjoy the service, but if you decide to leave and boycott us, that is your prerogative. However, know that you would then be penalizing us for a glitch that we immediately, within seconds of hearing about the issue, began to address technically and will be fully resolved less than one day after the discovery.

Also know that this feature was long requested by many, many users and after polling our users in the message boards for months, we determined that there was a majority interest in the feature and the minority that did not want the feature would for the most part be OK with an "opt-out' setting.

In the past, we have been accused of not listening to our users. I can promise you that there is no higher priority at Friendster today than to continue to develop products that our users want. We have a very large user base, so it is literally impossible to please all. But we are taking careful analysis of all feedback (like yours, over email, over Friendster, and even through blogs and the press) into full consideration and moving the product forward in a direction that we know will please the majority of our users.

Several months ago, we implemented a redesign that was not well-received, and within three days, we implemented a new design that has evolved into what we have today, which is very overwhelmingly well-received. We have taken our users' request for more media and have launched more picture storage than any other social networking site we know of, have enabled full multi-media capabilities on our profile pages, and will soon (next week) release a "network slideshow" product that automatically pulls the latest images from the people you care most about--your friends--in a compelling product execution. We have plans of doing similar custom programming with video and audio as well (stay tuned, all before the end of the year).

In short, we are now obsessed with evolving the product to suit our users' demands. I hope this is clear to you and I'd be happy to dialogue directly with you or anybody else on this matter.

Best,
Taek Kwon

Posted by: Taek Kwon on October 3, 2005 10:23 AM

I kind of liked the feature and it's "gotcha" debut. I'm extremely disappointed that Friendster caved under pressure from users embarrassed to admit that they regularly check in on the profiles of their exes, archenemies, and online crushes. On the flip side, I was glad to know that some of my past was checking in on me -- I mean, you have to admit there's a certain satisfaction in knowing that so-and-so is still thinking about you, and I suppose the price I'm willing to pay is that others know I've been peeking in on them as well.

Posted by: Tom Neeley on October 4, 2005 07:20 PM

I know the 'Who's view me'feature today and Im totally shocked, wondering when this feature started and how long I being viewed by others that Im viewing them!? I totally agree that it is wrong for not showing any prominent notification for us, make me feel embarrased. There is no privacy in Friendster!

Posted by: No privacy on October 5, 2005 08:09 AM

There have always been certain things that unnerved me about these types of sites:

5(d) of Friendster’s TOS : By posting Content to any public area of Friendster, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to Friendster an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, fully paid, worldwide license to use, copy, perform, display, and distribute such information and content and to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such information and content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.

Does this mean that my picture, currently posted on my publicly accessible Friendster account (which you can visit and send me a “smile” from), can be used by Friendster in advertisements without my knowledge? Or that Friendster might allow http://www.minidonk.com/ to use my pictures? (That site is awesome! – you can even see pictures of Country Music’s own Garth Brooks!)

The other problem is lack of security. Do these sites have in-house ethical policies restricting access to user information by system administrators? Can any of the site’s personnel with sufficient access view “private” site-based email? Would they? What’s to stop some admin named Deepak in Hyderabad from reading your most private love letters during his lunch break? Nothing.

How would the site handle demands by a governmental agency for “private” user information?

Posted by: Sajjad on October 5, 2005 04:57 PM

I kind of like the feature. Everyone knows that other people on there are there checking out other people. It doesn't necessarily mean that you are romantically interested in them, or even that you want to get to know them. Anyone who thinks that it means anything other than you were just curious, is most likely mentally imballanced with some sort of paranoia.

Get a grip dude. Actually a lot of you need to get a grip. Do you all flip out when other people catch you looking at them out in public? That's pretty much the equivalent behavior off line. You guys do get off line, right? No? Maybe you should try it some time. You might want to wear some mirror sunglasses though before you get used to the idea of acknowledged eye contact.

Posted by: Random Passerby on October 14, 2005 08:16 PM
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