How we built News Mixer, part 2: the trouble with Facebook Connect

This post is second in a three-part series on News Mixer — the final project of my masters program for hacker-journalists at the Medill School of Journalism. It’s adapted (more or less verbatim) from my part of our final presentation. Visit our team blog at crunchberry.org to read the story of the project from its conception to birth, and to (soon) read our report and watch a video of our final presentation.

Facebook Connect launched last week to much fanfare. Put simply, it’s a tool that gives Facebook users a way to log in to News Mixer, or any web site, without having to first set up a username and password and all the usual crap you’re forced to do when you when you want to use a web site. Just click the blue button, and you’re in.

Log in with Facebook Connect on News Mixer

Besides reducing barriers to entry, Connect lets us do some pretty neat stuff. Comments used to happen in the darkness — they were buried at the bottom of an article, where only the trolls dwell. But when you make a comment on News Mixer, your Facebook friends can see — and it’s our hope that this will bring your friends into the conversation.

More identity => less jackassery
In addition, by putting your name and face next to what you say, and showing your words to all your friends, we also hope that you’ll put a little more thought into that comment you’re writing.

But at what cost?
The thing is, we can find out a lot more about you than just your friends list. Connect reveals to us all sorts of information about our users. We could wish you happy birthday or tell you when one of your favorite bands is coming to town. Or we could help you find an apartment when you change from married to “it’s complicated.”

You see, whenever you use a Facebook Connect site, or any Facebook application for that matter, you effectively make the application your “friend.” Anything you reveal to your loved ones, we know too.

Facebook’s terms of service do tell us that we’re not allowed to store this data, but this is almost impossible for them to police. Facebook does allow users to restrict the information revealed to applications, but the reality is most people have no idea how much privacy they’re giving up with each witty remark.

But I promise, we’re being good! Other sites might be creepy, but we’re not. The only data News Mixer looks at is your name and your friend list, and we don’t store anything.

That’s it for part two! Can’t wait and hungry for more? Check out Facebook Connect in action at News Mixer!

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