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Faster Forward: As Facebook users fret over its wider reach, Post readies opt-out

By Rob Pegoraro
Friday, April 23, 2010; 5:58 PM

A vocal contingent of Facebook users could use a "Dislike" button to record their reaction to the expanded sharing system the social network launched Wednesday.

Facebook's new features--implemented by The Post in the form of the "Network News" box you see on this and other pages, plus the "Like" buttons next to many stories--have a fair number of users alarmed or angry to see Facebook apparently following them around the Web.

Others, already sick of hearing about the popular social site from friends, seem to find these Facebook boxes and buttons an irritating distraction. (In case you missed this in Wednesday's update, Post chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors.)

Consider the tone of the comments and questions Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti received in a Web chat here this afternoon. Wisely, Narisetti led off with this bit of news:

"So, by tonite or Saturday, our tech folks would have rolled out a clear Opt Out button on the module (a big X) that will give you a few choices, including the option to not have the module show at all when you come to washingtonpost.com. Of course if you use multiple log-ins or use different computers, you might have to do it a couple of times."

That opt-out briefly surfaced in my browser shortly after 5: a small red "x" at its top right corner, which I could click to bring up a preferences page with options to enable or disable Network News.

While we all wait for that to reappear (those of you who, like my wife, work in IT need no reminder of how site updates can hiccup), let me try to explain how this Facebook feature works and what you can do to control its workings.

Essentially, each Network News box and Like button, on our site or anybody else's, is a Facebook colony. Picture a lengthy network cable, running from each of those outposts all the way back to the Facebook homeland, and you may have a clearer sense of how they function.

That may be obvious if you know how Web pages are constructed from ingredients hosted at numerous other sites--text at one server, images at another, ads at a third. But that sourcing is probably invisible to most people.

(If you're in the first contingent and want more details about Facebook's plans, see Christina Warren's higher-level write-up on Mashable for a high-level evaluation; if you're in the second, see Mathew Ingram's now-what post on GigaOM.)

So to control how data commutes to and from each of these Facebooklets back to the mothership, you need to adjust your privacy settings on Facebook. Go there, hit the "Account" menu at the top right and select "Privacy Settings." On the privacy-settings page, click "Profile Information" and then set the menu to the right of "Likes and Interests" to "Only Friends" (or whatever exposure level you prefer).

Then, to opt out of the wider-reaching data sharing Facebook has launched with partner sites Yelp, Pandora and Docs.com, click back to the main privacy page, select "Applications and Websites," and then click the "Edit Setting" button to the right of "Instant Personalization."

Seem clear enough? Let me know--I'm writing this up as part of this weekend's Help File. Then let me know what privacy settings you've used.

I'll close by noting a conflict of interest I and many other journalists have with this sort of thing. See, we like to know that people have read our work and got something out of it. So we look at traffic numbers, we count comments, we check how often people click on the links we share on Twitter and so on. Facebook "Like" numbers are yet another way for us to validate our existence quantitatively. And so I don't mind seeing that "[Name], [Name] and 7 others like this," and I'll bet most of my colleagues don't either.

But I can understand why you might feel differently. Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you'll opt out of Network News when that setting is available.

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