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9/6/2006
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Facebook Subscribers Protest Site's News Feeds

A new feature on the social network seemed like a good idea, but some subscribers say it invades their privacy.

Tens of thousands of Facebook subscribers are unhappy with the social network's news feeds that keep members up to date on each other's activities, saying the new feature makes them feel like they're being stalked.

An online petition has been launched to lobby Facebook to drop the feature, and a protest site is calling for a one-day boycott of the popular site, which gives people the tools to build online communities based on workplaces or schools.

The news feeds, launched Tuesday, are added to a subscriber's homepage to keep them current on the activities of friends and groups. In addition, the site also adds what it calls "mini-feeds" to subscribers' profiles.

While the feature appeared to be a good idea, it made lots of Facebook users uncomfortable.

"If you're a member of Facebook, these mini-feeds are horrible, horrendous, and downright stalker-ish if you ask me, because it says everything about everyone and what they did, where they went,<" Trae McNeely, who claimed to be a senior at the University of Oklahoma, said in an email Wednesday. "It's the biggest mistake ever."

Melanie Deitch, a Facebook spokeswoman, said the unhappy subscribers were most likely unaware of the information available to people in their network, and should change their privacy settings if they wanted to exclude certain friends or colleagues.

"(News feeds) raised for them the awareness that when you post something, it's viewable by many people," Deitch said. The spokeswoman also noted that the number of complaints represented only a small portion of the site's more than 9 million subscribers.

The online petition, which had nearly 30,800 signatures and counting, demanded either the immediate removal of the news feeds and mini-feeds, or to allow a subscriber to opt out of having updates to their pages broadcast to other members of the community.

"Many users feel uncomfortable participating on Facebook.com because of the changes to the point that some have deactivated their accounts," the petition said. It also suggested that Facebook "actively communicate and consult with users in a democratic dialogue" before making any changes.

The site calling for a Sept. 12 boycott claimed Facebook had ignored subscribers' complaints on more than 350 anti-feed groups.

"It is becoming blatantly apparent that the powers that run Facebook are no longer in it for the community or the users," the site said. "While we have all appreciated Facebook, it is not a necessary part of our lives. And it is not the only way we can keep track of our friends."

The quick and public reaction to features Facebook believed would serve users better reflects the tightrope social networks walk with subscribers, particularly teenagers and young adults who can be fickle and move to competing sites rapidly. Friendster is an example of an early leader in social networking that fell from grace quickly to competitors, such as MySpace.

As an example of how sites can misread subscribers, Facebook product manager Ruchi Sanghvi on Tuesday said news feeds would let subscribers know when "your crush is single again." That, however, is exactly what some subscribers said they don't want.

"Before feeds, it was already easy enough to stalk anyone at your school, and everyone on your friends list; but with the advent of feeds, it is now nearly impossible not to be stalked or to stalk," the boycott site said.

The latest flap comes as Facebook and other social networks are lining up big advertising deals with search engine providers. Last month, Facebook said it would allow Microsoft to sell and display banner ads and sponsored links. The exclusive deal followed by about two weeks Google's agreement to pay News Corp. $900 million over three years to provide search and distribute advertising on MySpace.

Facebook in May was the third largest social network on the Web, followed by No. 1 MySpace and Classmates.com, according to ComScore Networks.

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