Yahoo Expands Yahoo Updates, Tiptoes On Privacy

Yahoo will soon be changing the way they handle status updates and social aggregation to make it easier for users to follow other people. But the PR fiascoes that have hit both Google (via their Buzz launch) and Facebook (via their most recent privacy changes) aren’t lost on Yahoo – they are taking particular care to explain exactly how changes will affect user privacy right up front, before the changes take effect.

Here’s the product expansion in a nutshell – currently to see status updates for others in Yahoo Mail, you have to have a mutual follow, meaning both people have agreed to be “friends.” You can then see that user’s Yahoo status updates as well as updates on third party services that they have added to their Yahoo profile as well. In the new version there will no longer be a requirement for a mutual follow. So, like on Twitter, users can follow whomever they choose.

This isn’t actually a dramatic change for Yahoo, since users can follow others in this way already on Yahoo Messenger. But Yahoo Senior Director of Project Management Cody Simms tells me that based on data that Yahoo has collected so far, they think they’ll see a massive increase in user adoption.

Yahoo will also suggest that you auto follow some users up front based on an algorithm that looks at your behavior, who your friends’ friends are, etc.

But Yahoo Chief Privacy Officer Anne Toth, who has been with Yahoo since 1998, says that there will be no privacy surprises for users, who can choose to turn sharing on, turn it off, or make more granular settings. One thing users will have to get comfortable with is the fact that most of this data is by definition public anyway. The privacy settings simply allow those users to decide whether others can follow you, and get notifications on new content you’ve created.

It’s not clear to me that users would suddenly revolt based on the changes. AOL implemented a similar product, Lifestream, earlier this year and there wasn’t a peep in the press about privacy. But Yahoo is implementing Updates deeply into the Yahoo Mail inbox, which is what got Google in trouble with Buzz.

One feature Yahoo left out is the ability to see who is following someone, and who you are following, which should ensure additional privacy, says Toth.