The Importance of Default Settings: Useful Social Research

A recent Ofcom report raises good questions about the appropriate default settings for social networking sites, particularly in the case of younger people. See their report:

If default settings were such as to prevent the release of data, such as birthdates or photographs, unless explicitly and purposively opened to wider audiences, they might prevent unwanted access to personal information. A recent study on the use of wireless routers supports the value of using more restrictive default settings. The study is reported in an article by Rajiv C. Shah and Christian Sandvig (2008), ‘Software Defaults as De Facto Regulation: the Case of the Wireless Internet’, Information, Communication and Society, Vol 11, No. 1, pp. 25-46.

The authors conclude that ‘defaults act as de facto regulation for the poor and poorly educated.’
The article is available online:

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Default Settings: Useful Social Research

  1. I suspect that we should probably revise the defaults, but not along the wireless router lines.

    In terms of visual architecture of SNS sites – I think there is a lot that can be done outside the settings themselves to make users more aware of the impact of their choices.

    When I view one of my pictures on Facebook (for example), where is the pull-down drawer at the top of the screen that tells me clearly who can see it (e.g. ‘This picture is visible to: people on your friends list’ or ‘This picture is visible to: anyone using Facebook’)? Or where is the colour coding or icon-scheme built into the design of the site to quickly give me visual clues about where my data is. With those sort of architectural changes in place – education and capacity building becomes empowering for people, rather than leaving them wanting to manage their settings, but rather stumped as to what exactly each setting it going to change in practical terms…

  2. Very good points, Tim. The right default will vary by technical device, and by user — children versus parents, and others. But a default position will be in place, even if it is sub-optimal for some users. What should be done? Are we limited to simply making the settings more transparent and easily managed by users?

  3. Hey Bill

    I’m not sure the lessons from Wireless Routers can be applied straightforwardly to Social Networking Sites.

    Where I probably wanted my Wireless Router to be kept secure, I just didn’t know how to secure it – the setting help.

    Where I join a Social Network Site – I want to be public. I want to find people – and I’m likely to either not take the secure defaults off, and so not get much use out of the Social Networks Site, or I’ll take them off – and apart from a slight extra bit of learning about their existence – we’ll still be in the same place.

    The motivation structures for the Wireless Router Security and the SNS security scenarios seem quite different.

    (I’ve heard a lot of people say recently that they started on SNS sites very open, and have since locked down – and putting this down to becoming more aware of the implications of being public. I think this is partly true – but I’m also just pondering whether you can start locking down your privacy settings once you have been open – because being open to start with allowed you to build up enough links within the network for it to be useful – and you now have less interest in generating connections and more in using the connections that have been made to share information etc.. If you start closed you struggle to build up those links…)

Comments are most welcome