Facebook privacy and pondering before you post

9 May

Facebook recently unveiled some new features, most notably, the implementation of the “Like” button all over the web. The feature is suppose to allow you to share content more easily. It also, conveniently, provides Facebook with a new level of psychographic information that can be leveraged with advertisers.

In addition, Facebook has steadily been changing some of its features and privacy settings from opt-in to opt-out, thereby making more and more personal information on the site public or at least visible to more Facebookers.

U.S. Senators are concerned. Some users are upset.

So I’ve been considering these issues for the last few days and reading various voices on the subject, and realized that I’ve never written about the issue before (as far as I know).

So a few thoughts on privacy, Facebook, and the web.

1. Facebook is currently invincible.

They have reached the point of critical mass, meaning that enough people use the site that is the by far the de facto social network. No matter how angry people are, many are unlikely to leave unless their friends leave because there is no similar web application that people could turn to and still find the same usefulness that Facebook offers. So as long as the number of people who leave the site is minimal, there is almost no chance that users will suddenly abandon the service en mass.

And because of that, Facebook has no incentive to create a privacy policy that will make users more comfortable.

2. Your view of Facebook and privacy is probably dependent on what you ultimately want Facebook to do for you and all its users.

As I see it, there are really two ways to view what Facebook’s role should be. Of course, there are variations, but here are the two sides as I see it, distilled.

  • Facebook is like a dinner party. You and your friends are there. Everyone knows everyone else. You might not know them that well, and occasionally someone there might actually only be a friend of a friend, but everyone is still fairly close to you socially. You talk and visit with everyone quite freely. People who weren’t invited to the dinner party generally don’t know what happened at the dinner party. Inevitably, people will talk to other people who weren’t at the party and will find out a few details of went on, but the majority of what happened remains secret.
  • Facebook is like a bar or a crowded restaurant. You and your friends are seated at a table. You still know everyone around the table, but you’re in the middle of a crowded room with many other tables and people around those tables having their own conversations. Now, if you listen, you can understand the conversations going on at the other tables, or at least get the gist of them. Now, while you spend most of the time at your table, if something absolutely intriguing or disgusting or amazing happens at one of the tables, you may get up, walk over and give your two cents. Here, it’s most likely that people won’t know most of the conversation at your table because they’re busy with the people at their own tables, but you never quite know who might have heard what.

Hopefully those similes (yes, they are similes because I used the word “like”) are helpful.

Now, some people think Facebook should be like a dinner party. Others think it should be more like a crowded restaurant.

The dinner party is exclusive. It’s the idea that Facebook should be a place to share information and photos with friends and should basically stay out of everything else. The purest form of this view would be when Facebook was just for college students (and later high school). Creating a place to allow the exchange of information with a select group of people.

As I see it, Facebook is currently more like a dinner party, but is trying to become more like a restaurant.

The restaurant is open. Anyone can come. Sure, you’re going to spend most of your time with your own friends: reading their walls, looking at their photos, browsing their profiles. But every once and a while you’ll stumble across something completely outside your social graph (indeed, perhaps it’s something outside of Facebook that draws you in). Maybe it’s a link or a video or a cool site. Or a product, as many corporations hope. Here you can easily share those things with your friends, the people at your table. But the price of all this is that everyone else can see more of your stuff, too.

Now, I think it’s a bit divisive to argue about which side is better. After all, plenty of people like both dinner parties and restaurants.

But as a matter of reality, I think in the end, those who prefer only dinner parties are going to lose out. Because the restaurant model will eventually win.

Why?

3. Because the web (not just Facebook) is destroying privacy.

The web has been destroying privacy probably since the creation of Google. And people have largely allowed this happen without protest, probably because less privacy allows you to do a lot of cool stuff. You can find information more easily and see trends with ease. Also, most of the information publicly available up until now has been fairly innocent, relatively speaking.

But now, with Facebook moving closer and closer to throwing your photos and profile information out into the open for anyone to see, people have started to notice. Up until now, people have been comfortable putting very personal information on Facebook because they understood what was said at the dinner party would largely remain at the dinner party.

The primary reason I believe people are threatened by the erosion of privacy by Facebook in particular but more importantly the web in general, is that it makes it harder for people to present different identities to different groups.

Currently in order to integrate fully into different social spheres, such as work, family, and friends, they must present at least slightly different identities of themselves to each one.

For example, your work identity includes your work habits, your professional skills and aspirations and perhaps a few trivial personal details. But not much else.

But without privacy, all of these identities are eliminated. There are no longer multiple identities. Just one. Your workers have the same access to information as your friends do. Your family can see just as much about you as your friends.

Naturally, people don’t like that. Some things are embarrassing.

But if everyone’s privacy is gone, as people like Jeff Jarvis argue, then you can see your bosses embarrassing information just as easily as he can see yours. If everyone’s embarrassing stuff is out there, then things aren’t quite as embarrassing as they would otherwise be.

That’s one possibility. Others, like Robert Scoble, argue that having everyone’s junk out in the open will actually make us less likely to put our junk online in the first place, instead of just being more overall accepting. I think the most likely possibility is a combination of the two options.

The stigma with making some information public will be eliminated, while the stigmas attached to other kinds of information will remain, causing people to post that kind of information less often. What will escape stigma and what won’t, I don’t know.

This whole debate is a bit jarring for me, and as I’ve read, for others journalists as well, because it’s counter to how we already operate. It’s forced me to consider how other people view privacy.

Journalists operate in the public sphere. Many journalists, when they join a news organization, are drilled with the fact that public will not separate our work (our work identity) from our personal life (or familial or social identity). Therefore, we are always, in a sense, “on.” We are told to always consider how every action we take reflects on our work and the organization to which we belong. We live are told, essentially, to live always as if every moment is a public moment.

So while journalists most likely retain some privacy, we live with a smaller expectation of it online. Which is why it is jarring to me when I had conversations with friends who have disabled or deleted their Facebook account because they do not want employers to access their information. I’m actually less likely to be hired if I don’t actively participate in social media. I just do so with the understanding that whatever I post may become public or read by anyone.

That means sometimes I don’t post things I would otherwise. Most of the time, I do anyways, however.

***

And the point?

Self-censorship will probably take care of the problem. Yeah, I know that’s a really reductionist answer.

Yes, social networks will become more open. And yes, new, more exclusive ones will always pop up.

But self-censorship is the best way to ensure that we don’t make public information that we don’t want made public. Censorship when directed by an individual at another individual can be a very destructive thing. That’s why we have the First Amendment. But when we direct the power to silence speech at our individual selves, the results can be quite positive sometimes.

People think before they speak. It shouldn’t be that difficult to think before we post.

Sources

The citations for the two major readings that spurred this essay are below.

Much ado about privacy on Facebook (I wish Facebook were MORE open!!!)

By Robert Scoble

Confusing *a* public with *the* public

By Jeff Jarvis

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