There are signs that Facebook may be beginning to realize that its privacy policies have consequences.  In an interview described here, Tim Sparapani, Facebook’s director of public policy, stated that the site plans to incorporate new, simplified privacy settings.  If that is true, and those policies meaningfully enhance privacy, that is very good news, as I have argued here and here.

Meanwhile, another recent post on The Huffington Post noted that there are a number of alternatives to the site.

Why does any of this matter, particularly on a blog devoted to describing what I term life’s best practices?  The issue is, in my estimation, of compelling importance — not only to Facebook and its users, but to the development and use of new social media tools.

Vast amounts of research establish that interpersonal connection is vital to personal achievement and life satisfaction. Modern social media tools are changing the landscape of connection.  Some fear that these tools, which don’t require face to face interaction, serve to isolate.  I disagree.  One could just as readily argue that the introduction of postal services served to isolate people, since they no longer “had” to travel across country, or across the street, in order to interact.  Yet few would disagree that postal services tended to enhance connection and communication.  The same is true with the telephone.  With the fax machine.  With email.

And the same is true with these new forms of social media.  As I have argued repeatedly on this blog (e.g., here), these new tools permit additional connections and a level of information sharing that can add enormous richness to relationships.

At the same time, these very benefits have their attendant risks.  Increasing connections leads to lots of people having access to what someone puts online.  Increasing depth of information sharing means that each of those people may learn a lot about those who post.

Moreover, although one can shout repeatedly that everything on the web is open and notorious, it is difficult to get people to incorporate that fact into their behavior.  This intuitively becomes more difficult when someone is posting information from the privacy of their home, after business hours, in a setting of implied informality and privacy.

So the tools have enormous value, but they have substantial privacy risks.  I want to see privacy settings that permit people to interact meaningfully online, while avoiding forced, inadvertent disclosures as a consequence of using the service.  Facebook has a chance to be an enormous force for good.  I’d like to see it take this opportunity as a defining moment.  Enormous profit is available to Facebook even if — and perhaps in some ways especially if — Facebook enacts meaningful privacy protections.

Where should Facebook draw the line?  Give me your thoughts.