How Facebook Is Quietly Getting You To Give Up More Data

You probably haven’t noticed tiny tweaks to Facebook’s permission requests in the App Center. But they’re better than ever at coaxing personal information out of you.

It’s no surprise that Facebook has a lot of your personal information — it’s kind of what you agree to when you sign up for Facebook. But now that Facebook has launched the App Center — where Facebook apps (Farmville, Draw Something), along the most popular iOS and Android apps that plug into Facebook, all live together — and become something more like Planet Facebook, you might be giving up personal information to more companies than just Facebook.

Facebook has always technically asked for your permission to do things, but every time it changes its design, things get a bit more unclear as to what actually happens when you do things like play a game or read an article. Facebook still “asks” for access to personal information for things in the App Center, but it’s not really asking so much anymore because of the way it’s framing the questions. And how you frame things changes everything.

Framing effects were first theorized by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1980s, whose research showed that even the smallest changes in phrasing could drastically alter people’s decisions. In a question about saving people from a hypothetical disease, participants in one group were given two options:

Option A saves 200 people’s lives

Option B has a 33% chance of saving all 600 people and a 66% possibility of saving no one

The second group was asked the same question, but given two different options:

Option C means 400 people die

Option D has a 33% chance that no one will die and a 66% probability that all 600 people will die

Options B and D have the same outcome, but only 28 percent of people in the first group chose option B, whereas 78 percent people in the second group chose D. The researchers said that framing the outcomes as either “saving” or “dying” had dramatically different effects on people’s choices. Since this study, others have studied framing’s influence on everything from political polls to beef choices, and it isn’t any different when it comes to web design. Facebook’s designers make strategic rhetorical and visual choices with words, colors, spacing, and placement — all geared at influencing our decisions in favor of Facebook.

The old permissions box and how it still looks if you access the app directly, not through the App Center. Facebook: appcenter

In a TechCrunch post, Avi Charkham highlights five design “tricks” that Facebook uses in requesting your permission. The image above is how permissions requests used to look (and still look if you access an app directly); the image below is how permission requests look in the App Center. Some of the most obvious differences are the removal of the two buttons to “play game” or “leave app,” but the more subtle design changes are the light grey font, and the removal of that special box around the most permissive, uh, permission: “This app may post on your behalf.”

Light grey fonts, bullet points and removing two button options are all part of Facebook’s subtle rhetorical and visual changes designed to more easily separate you from your personal information, argues Charkham.”They know exactly which permissions really frighten people,” Charkham told me, and that Facebook’s designers have strategically altered layouts to assuage privacy fears, or perhaps discreetly hide, the scary stuff.

The new permissions box Facebook: appcenter

“A lot of designers are implicitly aware of what is most likely to bring users to do what they want them to do,” Jessica Hullman, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan who researches visualization as a form of communication, told me. “Any design choice is rhetorical, but designers should think about whether the opposite would bring about a totally different effect.”

When it comes to Facebook, Hullman says framing effects can be even more pronounced. “It becomes harder to see it as persuasive as we become accustomed to a given interface,” she says. The longer we’ve used Facebook the less weary we become of saying yes to our old friend — except we forget it’s not just Facebook anymore.

This is the Glassdoor app page, where “visiting” its website not only gives up all your information, but anyone who’s friends with you on Facebook too. Facebook: appcenter

The Facebook app page for Glassdoor, a job reviews and connections site, shows just how pernicious framing effects can be: Your only option is to “visit” their website, which sounds pretty harmless, but it actually means a lot more. The last bullet, below birthdays and other basic info, tells you that this app can also access information from anyone who’s friends with you on Facebook too. Not even just their basic information, but their job histories and locations.

“Your eye will stop at last bullet, because the list just ended,” Charkham told me. “They took the worst permission and split it from the [bulleted] list completely.”

A spokesperson from Facebook told me that the changes in the App Center are designed to give people more information about an app, but it makes my eyes glaze over — especially where permissions are concerned. There’s almost too much information, with the most important parts often buried toward the end. The spokesperson also noted that both permissions processes (going to the app directly or through the App Center) include all of the same information. Which is true, but their designs are different.

“There are different designs depending on the entry point for the user,” said the spokesperson in an email. For instance, there’s no “leave” button in the App Center anymore because a user doesn’t need it to continue browsing or go back to the News Feed. “These were extensively tested and showed that more specific calls to action help users better understand the authorization process.”

But rather than a “better understanding,” these changes seem to prompt an unconscious acceptance. Like the people that strategically arrange the grocery store aisles, Facebook designers know that even the slightest changes can be extremely persuasive. It’s not that we don’t know an app is going to access our information when we play it, it’s just easier to say yes when your only option is “play game.” Facebook designers aren’t skipping out on permissions requests, but they seem to be capitalizing on our cognitive shortcomings by framing things in a way that makes it easier for people to agree to giving up their information.

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