It must be fun to play God as the owner of an online community or social networking site. You have millions of people who “live” on your website, and with each feature or new technical wrinkle, you are changing the way they live their lives online. But with that power comes responsibilities, and when those responsibilities are forgotten, the community rebels and leaves you in the dust.

Take the recent example of Facebook, by all accounts a successful social networking site with millions of members who connect in closed groups based on college or high school email addresses. What I always liked about the Facebook concept was that it wasn’t like MySpace because it made students feel a bit more safe in their own chosen groups of friends at school — and not the objects of fascination by the general public.

But the powers that be at Facebook, which was founded by Harvard college student Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, decided to add a “news feeds” feature that took away that safe feeling from people. These were not news feeds as we think of RSS feeds from news sites and blogs; they were feeds that let people track the changes made by other members in their network — what they might have changed in their profile, or what other profiles they had viewed, etc.

There was an outcry from users, who called it a stalking feature and were upset about the addition of the feature without a way to turn it off. Their online petition to remove the feature garnered over 100,000 signatures, and Zuckerberg and management had to back down.

“We really messed this one up,” Zuckerberg wrote on his blog. “When we launched News Feed and Mini-Feed we were trying to provide you with a stream of information about your social world. Instead, we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them. I’d like to try to correct those errors now.”

With some coding work, they fixed the feature so that members could choose what feeds to share and which ones not to share. But the question is how much goodwill was lost when Facebook “messed this one up.” When I was at the University of California-Berkeley recently, before the Facebook mea culpa, some grad students there were really angry with Facebook. A few of them didn’t believe Facebook would fix the problem, and others said they just couldn’t trust the owners anymore and would use a different service.

Valuation Over Humanity

Facebook, and similar online communities, are built on trust and the community members must believe that their personal privacy will be respected by the site owners. Especially in the case of the closed communities of Facebook, privacy was paramount. But Facebook seems to be turning its back on the college and high school audience that helped make it successful. Instead, Facebook is planning to allow anyone to join the service. The closed college communities will remain closed to the general public, but the service itself is trying to become more like the highly commercialized MySpace in a race for more, more, more eyeballs on the site.

Facebook, like MySpace, is a business, and the community members are not human beings in the eyes of Wall Street analysts — they are simply dollar signs for a valuation for a big sale to a media company. Japan’s social networking site Mixi recently had an initial public offering, from which Forrester analyst Charlene Li extrapolated to mean that Facebook users were worth $18.60 each, for a total Facebook valuation of $139.5 million. That’s a far cry from the $2 billion — or $285 per user — that Facebook reportedly wanted in a buyout.

The story of Facebook is the ultimate in dot-com hubris redux from the late ’90s. A site builds itself up, collects millions of eyeballs and tries to go public or get bought out. Because going public is more risky these days, it’s better to sidle up to a sugar daddy like Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., as MySpace did, or perhaps Yahoo.

But these young turks who want to relive the bad old dot-com boom daze should take a moment and visit Craigslist. The site rarely adds any new features, and looks largely the same as it did five or eight years ago. But founder Craig Newmark cares about his community, and stays in touch with an amazing number of community members, helping them solve their disputes and set up community guidelines.

When he plays God, he’s not the vengeful God or angry God or greedy God. He’s the caring God who hasn’t exploited his community with flashy advertising and tons of paid walls. He makes enough money to be profitable, but doesn’t drive away community members.

Hopefully Zuckerberg can see the error of his ways and keep in mind that the members of his community will only stay in the community if they feel safe, feel respected and feel heard by him. Otherwise, there are plenty of other places online for people to socialize, and there’s no cost to leave and go elsewhere.

For more on the Facebook fracas, I highly recommend social networking scientist danah boyd’s essay, Facebook’s ‘Privacy Trainwreck’: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama. Here is a key passage:

…There is anger and confusion in every direction. Many people are pissed and they can’t fully articulate why. Others are screaming that they’re overreacting and that nothing changed. When it comes to bits, that’s true. But the architecture did change this week. And with it, so did the social realities of the site. Facebook lost some of its innocence this week. Even when things return to “normal,” a scar will persist. Yet, the question remains: what will the long-term social effects of this “privacy trainwreck” be?

What do you think? Are you a Facebook user, and if so, what did you think about the news feeds? How do you think site owners should treat online community members? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Not surprisingly, the college press has the best coverage on the Facebook brouhaha. Just check out all the college sources in a Google News search for Facebook. My favorite headline comes from the Daily Toreador at Texas Tech: Facebook creators defend their Frankenstein.