This blog post was updated with new information on 27th June 2010.

In a pleasing case of synchronicity, Facebook have provided a significant update to User Statuses just two weeks after I posted about this very need.

This is what I said on May 12th:

Spooky, I was planning on blogging about the need for Facebook privacy filters for status updates. Currently all you can do is block people from reading your status. It would be far more useful to be able to set Group Level privacy on each status update. So personal updates could be kept personal, work-relevant updates could be shared with colleagues etc.The current system is incredibly basic, which is probably why it is so popular (sigh).

...and wonder of wonders, last night I was shown a new option on Facebook to achieve just that.

This simple change transforms Facebook from a relatively crude messaging system, into an extremely powerful one.  It's like having an unlimited number of different accounts, with which you can tailor what you broadcast and to who.

Don't want your mum to find out about your wilder exploits at Uni, but still want to brag about them to your mates?  No problem, just set up a "Not safe for mum" Friend List and post away.

I'm sure you can think of many other examples...

I haven't played around with this new feature in depth, but initial testing seems to show it works, but does err on the side of caution (unusual for Facebook) which may make you think it doesn't. Read on for more detail...

The section below has now been struck out, as testing on 27th June shows Facebook has fixed the bug.  What this means is that if your default wall privacy settings are visible by users A, B & C, and you post something that has a custom setting to be seen by persons A, B, C & D, then person D will now see your post on their newsfeed (as you'd expect).  Note that Person D still cannot see your wall though, so they can't see any old posts, even if you granted permission.  I think this is still a bug, as they should really be able to see your wall, but it should only contain items they were granted permission to see.

Anyway, it's good the main bug is fixed, because my workaround below didn't help for things like Mobile Uploads, where you wouldn't want all your friends to see a snapshot you'd taken.

I've made a Status Update for a small group of people and they can't see it!

This seems to happen in the case where the new people you are trying to post to were not previously authorised to read your wall.  If you check Account->Privacy Settings->View Settings->Preview my Profile and then type one of these names in, you will see what your wall looks like to them. If you don't have a wall when previewing as them, then they will not be able to see any of your posts. [Note this is in direct contrast to the current Facebook documentation, which states "What you select will override your "Posts by me" setting, which acts as the default."]

So, to get around this confusion you have to do something drastic, and set your default post privacy settings to "All Friends" or even "Everybody".  Don't worry, this won't cause all your old private wall posts to suddenly become visible, they will honour your settings at the time you posted them.

Once you have done this you should set up various new Friends Lists that contain the people you commonly want to post to. eg: "Family", "Close Friends", "Workmates" etc.

Now, when you preview your profile as a friend that didn't previously have permission to view your wall, you should see your wall is visible, but none of your old posts are (double check this!).

Finally, make a new status update for your original group of people and check your wall again. Your new post and status should be visible to them, and they should also receive it in their Newsfeed.

There is a downside to this situation, in that your default post settings will now be to too many people. So, you will need to remember to specify the correct group of people each time you post.  Set up Friend Lists to do this where possible or otherwise you will soon get fed up.  I believe this is a bug by the way, but until it is fixed this seems to be the only workaround.

Good points:

  • Have Full Control over who sees and who doesn't see your status updates.
  • It is seamlessly integrated into Facebook Share, so existing Facebook code should work fine (i.e. when a user clicks "share" on a Facebook enabled website, they now have the option to choose who to share with - you can try this yourself on the right of this page). But... see below about sharing links.

Less good points:

  • A possible bug means that you can't have a default post setting that excludes some of the people you may wish to post to in future.
  • Related to the first point, for people who already used to selectively filter people who could access their status, the new rules are a touch confusing, and it is alarming to have to change your main post settings to "All Friends".  Just reread this article carefully and post a comment if you have a question.  Also, I will reiterate that Account->Privacy Settings->View Settings->Preview my Profile is an invaluable test to double-check what certain people can see on your wall and profile.
  • Friends that do not have default access to your wall will see custom posts to them on their newsfeed, but can't access these posts at a later date via your wall - your wall is completely hidden from them.
  • You can't retrospectively change who can see your old wall posts, which is perhaps not surprising but still a bit of a shame for people with an archive of potentially interesting posts they would now like to selectively share. Maybe they will add this functionality in the future, but it's not likely.
  • You can't check the visibility settings of a particular post after you've posted it.  This is consistent with other Facebook data items like Photo Albums etc, but it would still be useful.
  • A significant number of users probably won't bother with the new settings anyway, and will continue to broadcast far too much detail about their private life, as foretold by Ben Elton in Blind Faith.

Of course, cynics will argue that Facebook have been forced into making this change, due to a widespread media backlash over their lax and confusing privacy settings.  I would fall into this camp, but find it unlikely they could have rolled out these changes so quickly so I suspect they have been planned for quite some time anyway.  Despite my tongue-in-cheek gloating above, this really was a fairly obvious direction for them to take.

Facebook have been making major updates recently in their bid to "take over the web", not the least of which is their adoption of a completely new set of APIs.  However, in my opinion this latest change is what has the greatest scope to expand their userbase to even crazier numbers.


Many Thanks to Frank, Sam, Cherry and David for helping me test various settings in this article!

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Written by Celerity Design, on May 29, 2010

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