Co.Design

Facebook Needs An "Incognito" Mode

A humble proposal for Facebook to grab privacy by the horns and continue the company’s global conquest.

Facebook exploded because we all care about what our friends are up to, and we all want to share what we’re up to. And it’s for those exact reasons that Facebook’s new Android app looks so promising—it’s replaced your apps with your friends, and who doesn’t love their friends?

Even still, Facebook has a very real engagement problem. As Facebook struggles to remain relevant, more private, tween-loved apps like Snapchat have taken root. Why? We’re happy to share some conversations publicly and have them documented forever. But eternal digital breadcrumbs, and the friends-of-friends-of-friends echo chamber of Facebook isn’t always what we want. It could take a lesson from Google and enable an incognito mode.

How It Might Work

I imagine signing onto Facebook and having a big button right at the top. You click it to go “incognito.” Of course, it would be a bit different from Google’s private web browsing mode, because Facebook is social and login-dependent to its core. (How could you possibly see your friends if Facebook has no clue who you are?)

But Facebook’s incognito mode could do a few things:

  1. Stop browsing data from being tracked internally
  2. Disable cookies, etc., that follow browsing beyond Facebook
  3. Make my incognito posts, pictures, and likes viewable only to my actual friends, forever
  4. Make my incognito posts, pictures, and likes unsharable in any way

The Engineering Challenge

While the front end solution is simple—it’s just a button—there are no doubt a slew of back-end issues this would create over at Facebook HQ. Most important, programmers would need to change the nature of Facebook likes so that either some likes would be anonymous to strangers or various users would see various like counts. (The former idea would probably be best for persistence of community.)

On a larger scale, it would reverberate into the entirety of Social Graph functions. Through Social Graph, Facebook may suggest an NPR story to you because friends with similar interests liked it. Any action you take in "incognito" should be immune to such tracking. But on top of that, Facebook might even have to pull the plug on its customized suggestions to anyone browsing in incognito. Because when are Facebook’s algorithms making decisions about suggested stories, pages, and other ads? Presumably, many are happening in real time in response to your browsing. Theoretically, that means incognito browsing sessions could be less engaging than those monitored and curated by Facebook.

The Problems With Apps

There’s also one lingering front-end problem as well. Facebook apps—specifically their new Android Home app—are almost ethereal in nature. It’s so focused on a seamless, beautiful presentation of content that a giant, red "Incognito" button (or even a tiny one!) would fundamentally damage the experience. Too big, it’s in the way. Too small, and nobody knows it exists or that it’s even working. How do you build quick privacy controls that can be toggled into a content-not-chrome experience?

No doubt, it’s a problem without any proven solution in sight. But when I take a look at Facebook Home and I soak in all of its striking design language, I know that many of us won’t use it—not because the experience isn’t great but because the experience isn’t private. Our phones, even more than our laptops, are personal spaces. Incognito is more important here than anywhere else.

Yes, It’s Too Ambitious, But Do It Anyway

No doubt, my incognito proposal would be almost unfairly difficult to implement, and I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of problematic use cases. For Google to add incognito to a browser is one thing; imagine if we were demanding the same functionality from Google+ or Gmail. How much rearchitecting would that require?

That said, I’m not sure that Facebook can simply beautify the privacy issues away—not when so much of the public is already nervous about engaging with the service. To change our view, they need to do something radical beyond a mere facelift; they need to noticeably give up some turf. They need to agree that, no matter how many subscribers have legally opted in, that it’s no one’s right to record and sell everything we do and say.

Facebook, just let us close the door to our rooms once in a while, and I promise, we’ll invite you over a lot more often.

Add New Comment

9 Comments

  • Simplequa

    Facebook is a trojan malware, sooner or later it is guaranteed that  you will severely regret signing up to it.

  • Nate Davis

    It's a great point. The tension I've felt using facebook since the beginning is the relational benefit of keeping up with distant friends and family, vs. the ongoing resentment at never being able to fully trust them. I have no doubt that anyone even moderately aware of online privacy has this same irritation, overcome only by the tremendous inertia of all the social capital invested. 

    In terms of things I regularly use with my computer, not even MS Word spell check's ignorance inspires as much cumulative negative feeling. 

  • Slinky & Snudis

    Heaps of people have 'icognito mode' so work, family, etc doesn't snoop too much. It's called a 2nd account.

  • Alex Denholm

    This is the exact opposite of what the mission of the company is. Transparency, credibility and sharing. Don't start up such a disappointing discussion.

    - Alex Denholm
    (Just so I don't come off as a hypocrite when I post incognito as a guest.)

  • guest

    Even if facebook says that it did it - will you still trust that it really did so?

  • Mickey

    It's called "if you don't have something nice to say, keep your mouth shut" as in what yo momma used to tell you.  The idea that technology trumps common sense, old school to some in a decade or two, is once again fodder for the horse[sense]. 

  • jonathanlibov

    I suggested something similar, but instead of it being "Incognito" while browsing Facebook - which is so antithetical to what Facebook is that I think it would confuse people - it would effectively be "Incognito" at the app level. 
    The upshot for Facebook is that it would greatly increase the number of users who are willing to use Facebook Connect as an authentication mechanism: http://whoo.ps/2013/02/28/what...

  • jonathanlibov

    I suggested something similar, but instead of it being "Incognito" while browsing Facebook - which is so antithetical to what Facebook is that I think it would confuse people - it would effectively be "Incognito" at the app level. 

    The upshot for Facebook is that it would greatly increase the number of users who are willing to use Facebook Connect as an authentication mechanism: http://whoo.ps/2013/02/28/what...