Permissions granularity ABC

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Picture credit: Peek-a-boo by Annie in Belziers, Lolcat title added

I’m almost sure that’s my most boring title to date, but hey, please feel free to refrain from reliving any duller former glories.  Anyhow, I should have two fantastic launches to celebrate soon, both of which will be of interest to people using, providing or running social networking services, so I’m going to thrash out a few of the issues I’ve been mulling over recently, prior to whatever trumpeting heralds my blog budget will run too.

Granularity in this context refers to the degree of choice users have about sharing their information- the choices a site member can makes over who gets to see what information and data they upload or create on site. Most services offer basic permissions within broad friend categories – you can share all your information with no-one (private), with all friends (friends in this context meaning people who you have approved/included on your contacts list), or with everyone (the public – this may be the broader site membership but usually refers to the internet viewing public).

The more granular the service, the more flexibility members have over what is made available and to who. The level of permissions granularity for any given piece of social software can actually be expressed quite simply:

who can see stuff x what kinds of stuff they can see = level of granularity

Permissions granularity is made up of there two main sub sections: the who and the what.

As outlined above, the who baseline permissions extend to three broad categories: myself (private), friends (privileges), or everyone (public). Of course across sites and services there are variations on these permission sets – Flickr for instance provides you with two levels of people you have given permissions too, labeled friends and family. Some services allow you to divide your friends list into sub-groups of your own making, so that you can label them and, in theory, manage who gets to see what more effectively.

The what refers to your stuff – blog posts, audio visual files, status updates and activity logs. So how granular the permissions are in this respect refers to how finely you can control the size of bits that you want to make available or restrict access too. So at the chunky end of the scale, you may only be able to make every thing public, private, or available to yoour pre-approved list. In the middle, you’d be able to assign viewing preferences to all of the different categories of activity and assets. Very granular services would enable you assign permissions make each individual post, update or whatever.

However, life isn’t this simple. Unless permissions are easy to understand, use, and change, most users will fall back on whatever the site defaults are, or to setting up their own defaults and leave permissions management at that. Any transparency about management is obviously further complicated by the increasing use of third party widgets and services into the mix.

Overly complex granularity, like an indiscriminate friends list, leaves users in the same fall back position – ignoring permissions controls because its easier.

6 thoughts on “Permissions granularity ABC

  1. Fully agree with Damien!
    I’m still trying to get my head round Facebook’s new permissions… while I know that people have said that Elgg’s are confusing, I can’t see that Facebook’s are easier; and certainly seem to be less flexible. I’ve done my best, honest, to forget all I’ve learnt from Elgg & to treat it as something new … but I’m still confused!

  2. Lol @Frances – maybe Beacon would have had a less bumpy ride if it was clearly marked with a ‘twirling the fan in the left hand’ animation. Facebook permissions are notoriously granular – a fact not overlooked by the Information Commissioner’s office. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7196803.stm
    At the time Dave Evan’s pledged “”One of the things that we’ll be working with the sites to achieve is to get better quality information to users to make it absolutely clear to people what exactly will happen to their information once it’s posted.”
    I’m not entirely convinced that this has happened. The serious issue here of course is the one raised by UK data protection law – under which children and young people are accorded the same rights as adults to be confident that they understand what is happening with their data, particularly who it’s visible too. If grown EdTechs have a tough time figuring it out it’s obviously not clear enough.

  3. Just to comment that Facebook also supports something between ‘Friends’ and ‘Public’ which is ‘Network’ – I guess this is like a limited public, where people in your network or community can share.
    In terms of educational stuff we might want to be able to share things across a class or cohort, even if no everyone in that group is a ‘friend’

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