Facebook released an upgrade of its excellent iPhone app today and there were two very big changes. Push notifications will now notify you whenever people send you messages, tag you in a photo or comment on your messages - whether you're looking at your phone at the time or not. That is going to change the Facebook user experience dramatically, increasing sychronous conversation and engagement on the site.
More importantly, Facebook added the ability to sync your phone's local contacts with your Facebook contacts list. Remember when Facebook kicked blogger Robert Scoble off of the site for exporting his contacts' emails in bulk? The company said it was important that users maintain control over their contact info. Apparently it doesn't feel that way about phone numbers any more.
Update: Facebook has contacted us and said that the app in fact does not export the phone numbers found on Facebook profiles to the iPhone. It is only exporting profile photos and links to Facebook profiles, associating those with phone numbers you already have on your phone. I was confused when writing about the new sync feature and wrote this post under the mistaken belief that Facebook contacts and the attached phone numbers were being exported. That would have been interesting, but that's not in fact what's happening. I apologize for getting the story wrong.
The syncing feature is very useful and sends to your iPhone peoples' profile photos, phone numbers when available and a link to load a contact's profile in the Facebook app. It does not export email addresses though, oddly enough. Emails have been obscured as an image to prevent machine export from Facebook, but phone numbers haven't. Now that Facebook itself exports the numbers, anyone could take them off of a phone and do anything with them.
This Summer when the slick new Facebook iPhone app was launched, developer Joe Hewitt told us that Facebook to iPhone contact syncing was coming - but said it was "a Terms of Service thing more than a technical thing." Hewitt has since stopped working on the app due to frustration with Apple. But what happened to the Terms of Service objections?
The funniest part? When you're doing the bulk export to sync, the Facebook app requires that you agree to the following text: "if you enable this feature, contacts from your device will be sent to Facebook and your friends' names, phots, and other info from Facebook will be added to your iPhone adress book. Please make sure your friends are comfortable with any use you make of their information." (Emphasis added.)
Ha! Is that all it takes to make export of Facebook users' info ok? Well let's apply this to some other forms of data while we're at it, shall we?
A number of theories could explain what's going on:
1. Facebook has changed its mind about user data privacy and control. The company is certainly pushing users towards being more open than ever before.
2. Facebook was never really serious about privacy, the ban against exporting friends' information was just a matter of corporate control and privacy was a ruse to justify it.
3. Something else is happening that we don't know about yet. We've contacted Facebook for a response, we'll update this post if we get one.
That said - this is a really convenient feature. It's very handy to take a quick gander at someone's Facebook Wall before calling them on the phone. The ability to do that is going to make Facebook much more important in my every day life. In other words, you should add me as a friend on Facebook so I can put you in my iPhone. (You should also become a fan of ReadWriteWeb on Facebook, while you're at it.)
Like it or not, honest or not, this is going to make Facebook much more useful for those of us who operate in the public sphere. Even most of us though, and certainly the bulk of the hundreds of millions of people who signed up for Facebook-the-private-social-network, do have some use for a degree of privacy. Each time another bit of that is taken away, it makes you wonder how long the rest of it will last for.
Next: What's coming next to the Facebook iPhone app? This Summer developer Joe Hewitt named 3 things that were coming soon and this update includes 2 of them. What's still on the list? Read on to find out.