Facebook is slowly rolling out substantial changes to its privacy settings this week, making them less granular and, hopefully, easier for users to manage. One of those changes could have a substantial impact on Facebook's future as a platform for social games and light virtual worlds. Under the new privacy settings, Facebook users now have "an easy way to turn off all third-party services," to use the words of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
What this means in practical terms is that a Facebook user can now make his or her account inaccessible to all third-party apps by simply toggling one Facebook option. Under the new "Privacy Settings" dashboard in Facebook there is an "edit your settings" link for "Applications and Websites." That link takes you to a "Turn off all platform applications" link that you can activate simply by clicking it.
This pops up a list of any applications you have installed and a warning that you'll be cut off from use if you block them. From this control panel you can choose to shut down specific apps you have installed, or use a "select all" button to shut off notifications from all apps on your profile. The process can take some time if you're an established user, but would probably be over very quickly for a new Facebook user who simply doesn't want to see any of that awful FarmVille spam he or she's heard so much about.
Once you've turned off all platform applications, you have the option to turn them back on simply by clicking a "Turn on all platform applications" link that appears in place of the old "Turn off" link. The real issue for Facebook developers is that it's possible, going forward, for there to be a substantial number of users on the platform who cannot be reached by any viral spread method beyond display advertising.
A user who's turned off platform applications can't even install an app (or use Facebook Connect) unless he or she specifically goes through the "Turn on all platform applications" process. New app discovery is already difficult on Facebook due to the lack of any centralized download repository like the App Store, but could become even more difficult now that users can simply shut down yet another important Facebook viral channel.
Previously users could opt to block all app notifications from specific friends (say, heavy YoVille addicts) or block specific apps, but this had to be implemented on a time-consuming case-by-case basis. A newly launched Facebook app would still have a chance in its initial weeks to be seen by users who might not otherwise be social gamers, MMO players, or virtual world users. This may no longer be the case, though the new option will undoubtedly improve user experience for some.
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